DADE CITY - After beating Nature Coast twice during the regular season, top-seeded Hernando knew exactly what it needed to do against the No. 2 Sharks in the Class 3A, District 6 championship match.
The Leopards didn't execute perfectly, but they did just enough to win 25-20, 26-24, 25-19.
They tried their hardest to take Sharks power-hitter Iliana Santos out of the match, but Nature Coast's offense turned out to be more well-rounded than the last time the two teams met. On top of that, Hernando's hitting and serving lacked its usual potency, which kept the games closer than the Leopards (17-3) liked.
"I didn't think they played up to their potential," Hernando coach Dena Frye said. "And they've (the Sharks) improved since the last time we saw them."
Hernando opened the first game with a 7-3 lead when the Sharks (16-7) were able to catch up on a slew of Hernando mistakes and strong attacks by Santos and Alyssa Darmanin. Nature Coast built a 15-10 lead before Hernando's offense reeled off 10 kills to win the first game.
But it was the second game that seemed to take the most air out of the Sharks. They began with a 5-3 lead, but the Leopards were able to close in. Tied at 24, the Sharks defense broke down as Hernando put the match away on a Katie Geiger kill and a failed Nature Coast serve reception.
Hernando took advantage of its momentum by dominating most of the third game. The two teams tied at 8, but the Leopards sharpened their strategy, using dumps and well-placed attacks to hold off the Sharks.
"We worked so hard, but we made mistakes," Sharks setter Yarixa Cruz said. "And you can't make mistakes if you want to beat them."
Nature Coast, a 2-year-old program, came a long way to make it to the district final. The Sharks finished 3-21 last season and overcame a language barrier this season with first-year coach Maria Cruz, who speaks little English. Hernando, a defending district champion, was the only team to beat the Sharks twice during the regular season.
The Leopards were led by Brittni Murphy's 25 assists and Cheyenne Sellers' 14 kills. Jillian Matherly had 13 kills.
Hernando will host its region quarterfinal next week, and Nature Coast will travel.
4A-9: Defense powers Central past Leesburg
CRYSTAL RIVER - An aggressive Central defense held off a potent Leesburg attack as the Bears took the title with a 26-24, 25-20, 25-20 win. The Bears blocked 16 shots, led by Heather Wooster with nine. That included seven in the final game. Every time Leesburg (12-3) attacked the net, Wooster acted like a brick wall, not allowing the ball to pass her. The senior captain knew Leesburg would come with an aggressive attack and if her team was going to win, the front line would need to come up big.
"They are a very good team," Wooster said. "They are aggressive at the net and they have some players that can attack the net. We needed to get to the net and be in position to stop any threat they mounted."
Trailing 21-16, Leesburg's Jessica Brady served six straight points, including four aces. The Yellow Jackets took a 23-21 lead, but their inability to hold another service point caused them to lose 26-24.
Game 2 was back and forth. Central (13-1) led 16-15 when it took back the serve and Erin Livengood had five straight service points giving the Bears a 22-15 lead. Leesburg fought back to pull within 22-20, but ultimately lost 25-20.
Leesburg trailed the night before two games to none to Lecanto, but was able to pull out the win in five games. "When we lose the first game or the first two games I tell the girls that there is nothing we can do about it and we have to move on," coach Amy Morley said. "We had the confidence going into the third game but we were outplayed."
Central won the third game 25-20, giving the Bears the title.
- DAN COLLINS, Times correspondent
A-4: St. John's too much for Seven Rivers
OCALA - After being down early in the first game and coming back to win, Seven Rivers Christian appeared to have momentum on its side.
But the Warriors couldn't keep up the pace, ultimately falling to host St. John Lutheran 23-25, 25-8, 25-12, 25-23.
Trailing 10-3 in the first game, the Warriors (10-11) went on a 22-12 run.
Lacey Lyons helped contain Saints standout Lauren Richardson with three blocks.
"Lacey shut down Lauren and that helped our momentum," said Seven Rivers teammate Danielle Toms, who led her team with eight kills.
In the second game, the Warriors looked lost, committing many unforced errors against a mixed up Saints attack. Richardson dominated after the first game. In all, she had 17 kills, 7 aces and 21 serve points to go along with three blocks.
Jennifer Abbott led off the third game with six straight serve points to give the Saints an early lead. The Saints used a 9-0 run later in the game to take a 21-3 lead, before taking the game.
"The second and third games were sort of a surprise," said St. John coach Laura Duncan, whose team improved to 17-2.
The fourth game featured St. John sprinting out to a 17-8 lead. The Warriors came back to within one point at 24-23.
But a Richardson kill ended the match as the St. John's crowd erupted.
"In the fourth game, we were getting a little scared but I knew the girls could do it," said Duncan.
Seven Rivers will be on the road for next week's region quarterfinal.