LAND O’ LAKES – Hernando knew coming in it would play the underdog role in Tuesday night’s Class 5A, Region II semifinal.
But two games in it appeared the Lady Leopards would put up a fight against host Sunlake. Then the Lady Seahawks turned it up a notch.
In a dominant display over the third and fourth games, Sunlake ended Hernando’s season in the Sweet 16, 25-16, 23-25, 25-15, 25-9.
“You can’t really say anything negative about Sunlake. We knew they had the hard hitters coming in,” Hernando head coach Robin Bailey said. “Our blocks, we were a little lacking on that. But they wanted it more, I guess.
“I think they’re more experienced than our girls. They all play club ball. Our girls don’t, they play other sports. So I think that experience helps them. But what made them tough is they knew where to place the ball whether it was a hit or a tip.”
The Lady Leopards (17-4) only trailed 16-15 in the first game before the Lady Seahawks (24-5) went on a 9-1 run, including six straight with Colby Coats serving to close it out.
Sunlake held a 15-11 advantage in the second before Hernando sprung to life. With Ali Bronson at serve, the Lady Leopards rattled off six points to make it 21-17, then the Lady Seahawks bounced back to tie it at 21.
However, Hernando never allowed Sunlake to get back in front and managed to knot up the match at a game apiece. Bronson had four of 13 kills in that set.
“I think they played together better, they communicated better,” Bailey said of that second game. “But in the third game and fourth game Sunlake just had a better game going.”
In the third, the Lady Seahawks used a 10-2 run to blow things open, making it 22-11 on the second ace in a row by Chloe Deal.
They opened up the fourth with a 4-0 lead and never looked back, as Sarah Sprague notched the game-winning kill, her 22nd of the match.
Sunlake, making its first regional appearance, is now headed to the Elite Eight to face Belleview on Saturday.
“The girls have deserved it. They’ve played hard all season,” Sunlake head coach Deann Newton said. “Pretty exciting, first time in school history to make any playoff, so anything at this point is icing on the cake.
“Our passing got a lot better. We were hitting the ball more, because we were tipping a lot in the second game. So I said, ‘Just hit the ball. Get up there and hit the ball, be smart but hit the ball.’”
Despite the loss, Hernando advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010, repeating as 5A-District 7 champions in the process.
“I’m disappointed in that I wish we would have won,” Bailey said. “But I’m proud of them. They went one step further than we did before. It’s emotional for my seniors. I’ve had them for four years. But Sunlake’s a good team.
“I’m happy with the season. I wish we could have gone further. But I can’t complain about it.”
Sunlake 3, Hernando 1
1 2 3 4
HER 16 25 15 9
SUN 25 23 25 25
Records – Hernando (17-4), Sunlake (24-5).