Middleburg sweeps the Cobras behind dominant serving to get to the state final two years in a row.
LAKELAND - Sports psychologists tell athletes to visualize success in their minds, theoretically increasing the likelihood they will achieve similar results on the field or court.
Middleburg went one better, committing its thoughts to paper. Coach Carrie Prewitt asked her players to write newspaper articles before Wednesday's Class 4A semifinal, complete with scores and highlights.
"At the end of almost every single one of them, it said, "Middleburg will be facing Gainesville in the finals,' " Prewitt said.
It wasn't as easy as the 25-2, 25-4, 25-3 score senior Monique Crehore predicted, but the bottom line was the same: Middleburg swept Hudson to advance to the final a second straight season.
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Bradley had match highs of 17 kills and eight service aces to lead the Broncos 25-17, 25-21, 25-17 over the Cobras at The Lakeland Center. Middleburg (25-4) faces Gainesville (29-2) today at 4:30 p.m. in the final. The Hurricanes defeated the Broncos in four games last season, a loss Middleburg's returnees have been reliving in their minds since the first day of practice.
"It's always our goal," Bradley said. "We always want to play them, and we do because it's such a good match and a good rivalry."
Hudson (27-3) fell one match short of reaching the state final for the second time and first in four seasons, but far exceeded its preseason goals.
"Coming into the season we had a really young team; we were carrying four, sometimes six freshmen with us," senior middle hitter Allyson Ray said. "I think our goals all together were just play together as a team and see how far we could go."
Hudson advanced to the final four for the third time in its history largely on the strength of Ray's and senior Devon Fodi's hitting. Ray set a school single-season record with 276 kills, and Fodi had 128. But Middleburg limited the 6-foot Ray to four kills by rotating to allow 6-foot Amanda Youell and 6-foot Bradley, the Broncos' biggest blocking combination, to work against her.
"We rotated our offense to adjust to her so that we could force side," Prewitt said. "She still scored quite a bit, but I think we definitely took her out of her comfort zone, and that was our goal."
With the middle blocked, Hudson setter Jenna Strawser was forced to go outside, where Fodi had seven kills and Lara Metz four.
"They were triple-blocking in the middle," Hudson coach Linda McQuade said. "Typically, we'd been using Allyson all season. They stopped Allyson, so we went to our outsides and started using them more than we usually do."
Hudson also faced a more talented hitter than usual. Whether attacking from the front or back row or serving, Bradley seemed to find the floor.
"She's pretty versatile," McQuade said. "She'll come up and look like she's going to hit and then she'll tip. She changes her hand a little bit and then you know she's going to tip, but it's hard to read that from the court."
Middleburg was shorthanded up front after 5-10 senior outside hitter Kavie Sturch pulled a quadriceps muscle during warmups, limiting her to back row duty. But 5-7 junior Megan Steadman stepped seamlessly into Sturch's role, and the Broncos never looked back.
Though disappointed, Hudson didn't lose sight of how far it had come.
"We achieved far beyond our goals that we had this year," Strawser said. "I think just getting to the final four was way more than we expected."