On Tuesday night, the Nature Coast Sharks defeated the Hernando Leopards in four sets at the Leopards Den. Head Coach Emily Gore’s squad avenged the loss they suffered to the home team in a tournament earlier this season. Combined with the records, it starts to paint a picture of the up-and-down years the cross-town rivals have had. At times, it looked as if the visitors might sweep the Leopards, and at others, it appeared the home team might make things more than just interesting.
“I mean, the first two sets were great,” Coach Gore said. “We came out; it was a strong start. Exactly what we wanted. Even had a great lead late in set three and Hernando wound up digging deep and pulling that one out. So, I think we lost our energy when that happened. We got deflated a little bit because set four wasn’t great either, but we found a way at the end to make a couple plays, pull out that win.”
As the Sharks’ coach stated, the first two sets were relatively smooth sailing, but the visitors did have to battle back from an early 8-2 deficit in the initial frame thanks to seven straight points by Hernando. This was due to several errors in the opening minutes by Nature Coast and strong play by Leopards Junior OH Kaiya Ward.
After Hernando committed a litany of mistakes, the Sharks took a temporary 15-14 lead midway through before Hernando wrested the advantage right back with three straight points – two of which Ward was directly responsible for. It was all Sharks for the rest of the set as they would score eight of the next eleven points, with Junior OH/MH Addison Carpenter scoring two of her team’s final three points for the win in set 1.
The second stanza was much of the same as Coach Gore and company jumped out to an insurmountable 20-7 lead. Hernando would go on a 10-4 tear late to bring the score to a more respectable 25-17. After the Leopards broke off a pair of scoring runs across the first two periods, would that portend another in the third?
With a strong 20-13 advantage and a two-set lead, the Sharks were on the verge of a sweep. That was when Head Coach Robin Bailey’s squad stepped up. They would rally to the tune of 12 out of 14 points. The home team was assisted by more Nature Coast errors, such as hits that sent the ball sailing out of bounds or into the net. Carpenter would also contribute a quartet of kills during this run to complete the 25-22 comeback and prevent the sweep.
The Purple and Gold would carry that energy into the final frame as the Sharks looked to find their footing again. “We had like an early deficit of a few points, and I think when we got back, we tied, and we took that lead—that was the difference, I think,” the Sharks coach said. After being in a similar 8-3 deficit as the first set, Coach Gore’s team chipped away until taking their first lead at 19-18. Hernando would gain the advantage soon after before Nature Coast regained the lead for good. This was thanks to a total team effort, with Carpenter, Junior Amanda Tirado, and Freshman Jalena Hathorn making critical plays late in the 25-23 victory.
Moving forward, the Leopards and Sharks will both play in weekend tournaments as they prepare to wrap up their seasons. Both squads will have the opportunity for one final push to gain positive momentum. For Coach Gore, that is precisely her squad’s goal: “to get hot at the right time so we can take that in the district tournament.”