By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — Goodbye, Cape Coral High School.
Hello, North Fort Myers.
It’s time for round three.
The Lemon Bay Manta Rays defeated the Cape Coral Seahawks 25-22, 25-11, 25-15 in straight sets Monday night to advance to Tuesday night’s District 10-7A semifinals against North Fort Myers. A regional berth will be on the line between the two teams, which split the season series.
Caroline Hill returned from a two-week absence due to a sprained ankle to lead the Manta Rays (12-13) with 13 kills and three aces against the Seahawks (9-11). Haylee Layne also served up three aces and finished with eight kills while Francesca Gallucci added six more kills, including four in the opening set.
But it was Hill’s return that seemed to spark the Manta Rays. She went down in the loss to North Fort Myers on Oct. 5 and Lemon Bay followed that loss with another a week later against Port Charlotte.
Her return was certainly welcomed against Cape Coral, which lost both regular season meetings to Lemon Bay.
“I’ve known Caroline for a long time and I knew she wanted to be back,” Lemon Bay coach Pat Auer said. “She kept asking to come back. I knew she’d be ready to play. She can set and she can hit. She was hitting the ball hard and she was a difference maker.”
After an incredibly tight first set, where neither team led by more than three points, the Manta Rays took over the match with a dominant performance in the second thanks in large part to Hill and Layne. Lemon Bay jumped out to a 17-2 lead in the set and never looked back as Hill delivered four kills and Layne scored four more to go along with two aces.
“Once we realize we can do it we have a little bit more confidence in ourselves,” Hill said. “I think we started off too confident but once we realized we had to give a little more effort it was a lot easier.”
The Manta Rays kept that confidence rolling in the final set to send the Seahawks to the bus early. Lemon Bay jumped out to a 10-3 lead, and although Cape Coral pulled to within a point with a 6-0 run, the Manta Rays never trailed.
With the Manta Rays holding onto a 15-13 lead, Hill and Layne took the third set over to finish off the Seahawks. Cape Coral sent a serve into the net to extend Lemon Bay’s lead to three, which led to back-to-back kills by Layne and Breanna Nelson for an 18-13 advantage.
The Seahawks got back to within four points on a Lemon Bay hitting error but the Manta Rays scored the final six points to take the match. Hill followed her team’s mistake with a kill and an ace and, following another kill by Gallucci, scored another ace before Layne finished off the match with back-to-back kills.
“This gives us the confidence boost we need for tomorrow night,” Layne said. “We’re going to need to be really good tomorrow and be on our game in order to beat [North Fort Myers].”
Lemon Bay’s loss to North Fort Myers came in a four-set defeat in the Red Knights’ gym and the district semifinal will be played there again. The Manta Rays were happy with Monday’s win, which included solid offense but also a lot of hitting errors by the Seahawks, but know they now they’ll have to play even better against the Red Knights if they hope to clinch a spot in the Class 7A playoffs.
“We’re going to need to be on our game. No mistakes. We have to have good attitudes,” Hill said.