By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
NORTH FORT MYERS — The Manta Rays could have given in.
But they didn’t.
After dropping the first two sets to North Fort Myers High School, Lemon Bay fought back to win the next two sets to force a decisive fifth set.
But it was there that the Manta Rays just ran out of gas.
The Red Knights rallied back to defeat Lemon Bay 25-12, 25-14, 23-25, 20-25, 15-6 in a District 7A-10 semifinal Tuesday night at home. North Fort Myers clinched a spot in the regional playoffs while also advancing to Thursday’s district championship against Charlotte, which defeated Ida Baker in straight sets in the other district semifinal.
The season for the Manta Rays is over but they didn’t go down without a fight.
“We didn’t look good at all in the first two sets so I tried a few different things with some different people,” Lemon Bay coach Pat Auer said. “In the third game we came back in a close game and in the fourth game. It’s an unfortunate part of the game. I’m very proud of them. I have nothing but accolades for them. I was very impressed with them. They fought hard.”
Despite Lemon Bay (12-14) carrying all the momentum into the final set, North Fort Myers (17-6) quickly turned the tables. The Red Knights jumped out to a 9-1 lead thanks to two kills by Delanie Zohler, another by Sydney Meyers and an ace by Matelyn Booth.
It also didn’t help that Lemon Bay’s defensive ace Kacee Nelson went down during the final frame with a shoulder injury and did not return.
“I think the third and fourth games just took a lot out of them,” Auer said. “I kept the same girls in there because, hey, it worked the third and fourth games so I kept them in there the fifth game. The injury hurt but we came back a little after that but it as a downer for the team.”
Lemon Bay responded by scoring five of the next six points out of a timeout to pull to within 10-6 but couldn’t score again. A shot into the net turned the serve back over to the Red Knights, who proceeded to score four straight on kills by Ridley Morgan and Katie Dickey and an ace by Caitlynn Cantrell before a shot out of bounds by the Manta Rays handed the Red Knights the victory.
Morgan led North Fort Myers with nine kills while Booth and Dickey had eight apiece. Zohler finished with seven kills and four aces and Booth also served up four aces in the ultimate seesaw match.
“It’s honestly kind of been the way our season has been,” North Fort Myers coach Nancy Eskay said. “We can play very, very well in the first and second sets and then things will just kind of swing over and we’ll have a little bit of trouble building momentum, trouble kind of getting into systems and getting some kind of rhythm. Then all of a sudden it’ll turn on again and that’s obviously what happened in the fifth set. We talked obviously between the fourth and the fifth set and I said ‘hey, we can’t be playing like we have tomorrow because tomorrow doesn’t exist unless we win,’ so I think the girls kind of took that to heart and decided we don’t want our season to be over yet.”
Caroline Hill led the Manta Rays with 11 kills, eight blocks and seven digs to aid the comeback but she had plenty of help as well. Nelson finished with 15 digs, Emily Schulte had nine, Aimee Holt had eight and Maddie Taylor had six.
Senior Haylee Layne also finished with six kills in her final match alongside those other four seniors.
“I even thought at the beginning ‘well, okay’ after losing those first two sets but they came back,” Auer said. “The seniors did awesome. We’re losing six seniors but we have a lot of girls coming back and we have a few freshmen coming up so it’ll be a good season again.”