TAMPA — In the first two sets against district foe Sickles, Wharton let the Gryphons hang for a bit. But each time, the Wildcats pulled away, taking advantage of a balanced attack and big blocks.
In the third set, however, Sickles held on to slip by and force another. In the fourth, the Gryphons built on that momentum, eventually going on a 5-0 run and causing Wharton to take a time out.
With a potential decisive fifth set looming in the Class 8A-8 semifinal and a playoff berth on the line, coach Eric Barber had to light a fire under his squad.
"Our big problem is serve receiving. Especially once we make one little mistake, some girls get in their heads. But we can't do that," said outside hitter Jeanette Henderson. "(Coach) just said, 'You've got to snap out of it. You've got to get your head in the game. You've got to push through it and play out.'"
And after that, the Wildcats did.
After the break, Wharton began serving more aggressively, and the Wildcats commanded a presence at the net, finishing the set on a 17-3 run to win the match 3-1 (25-21, 25-15,17-25, 25-12).
The Wildcats will face Plant (22-1) in Thursday's district championship match. The Panthers — whose only loss this season came at the hands of nationally ranked Oviedo — haven't dropped a district set all season.
Wharton knows what it has to fix in order to have a shot at the title. It's the very thing, Henderson said, that got the Wildcats in trouble at times against Sickles.
"Sometimes it's our serve-receive. Either the platform is not right there or we're not freezing," said Henderson, who led Wharton (23-2) with 12 kills Wednesday. "But also, too, sometimes it's just mental, not having enough energy, not having enough momentum, positivity to push through it."
In the first set, Sickles led 11-10, but big kills from middle blocker Lexi Morse put the momentum back in Wharton's hands. The second was much the same; Sickles (14-6) remained within a point midway through, but Henderson had a big block and an ace that provided a shift once again.
So when the Wildcats struggled early in the fourth, Barber didn't panic. He had faith that a turning point would come.
"They came out real tight in a couple of those games, so we kind of had to run through that a little bit. Then we just caught (Sickles) in a couple rotations that were tough for them, and we were able to capitalize on it," Barber said. "Game 2, game 4, when we made those runs, we were in a lineup that was advantageous to us."
Plant, which beat Wiregrass Ranch 3-0 (24-13, 25-9, 25-22) in the second district semifinal of the night, was one of just two teams Wharton lost to in the regular season.
Wharton's road ahead will be tough, and it could include a third match against the Panthers, if both teams make it far enough in the playoffs.
The Wildcats, though, refuse to cower.
"We're ready to come out and fight," Barber said.