The Eagles roll over Charlotte before downing Clearwater for the title.
By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002
PUNTA GORDA -- To make it back to the state final four, East Lake had to travel 120 miles south to Punta Gorda Charlotte and play in a region that had four ranked teams.
Turns out, the trip itself was the hardest part.
No. 5-ranked East Lake beat No. 9 Charlotte 15-2, 15-10 in the semifinals and No. 7 Clearwater 15-7, 16-14 in the final to return to the state tournament for the second straight year. East Lake (24-7) will play Boynton Beach (23-8) in the semifinals Friday at the Lakeland Center.
"All year long, this team has felt it had some unfinished business," East Lake coach Terry Small said. "Our goal was to get back to the state tournament, and the team has been focused on that throughout the playoffs."
While the Eagles' main objective was to make it back, they had a secret ambition of doing it against an all-too-familiar opponent: Clearwater.
In fact, East Lake players and coaches arrived in Punta Gorda early to cheer on the Tornadoes as they upset top-ranked Fort Myers 15-9, 13-15, 15-8 in the other semifinal match.
Clearwater (24-9) had a chance to sweep the Green Wave (26-3) in two games but let a 13-9 lead slip away in the second game. The Tornadoes showed their resolve, breaking a 7-7 tie in the deciding game by scoring eight of the final nine points to win the match.
"It was a gut-check time for the girls and they responded like they always do," said Clearwater coach Lynn Hallmark, whose team was 8-1 in matches decided in three games.
"We're glad that East Lake was there to cheer us on and we're going to do the same for them. This is what we want: an all-Pinellas final."
After the Eagles swept the host Tarpons (24-8), the district rivals faced off for the right to go to state.
"We knew this was a possibility coming in here," Small said. "Clearwater has been a team that has been on our minds ever since we lost to them earlier in the season."
In losing to Clearwater nearly a month ago, East Lake fell out of contention for a berth in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference title match, lost the No. 1 seed in the district and dropped from fourth to eighth in the Class 5A poll.
On the outside looking in, the Eagles climbed back into contention and swept the Tornadoes in their regular-season rematch and in the district final.
The region final had a similar ending.
Led by the serving of Melissa Roberts, who had five aces, the Eagles cruised in the first game.
The second game was closer as Nikki Morzenti (eight kills, two blocks and two aces) helped Clearwater go ahead 14-12. But East Lake forced a sideout on match point and Roberts served the final four points to win.
"I was nervous having to play Clearwater again," Roberts said. "They're a good team and it's a shame that both of us couldn't move on."