Something really strange happened to the St. Thomas Aquinas girls’ volleyball team on Saturday afternoon that hasn’t happened in a very long time.
The Raiders got pushed to the limit.
Hosting Bradenton Manatee in a Class 8A state semifinal in front of a packed and noisy gym including the football team, the Raiders, who had not dropped a single set in regional or state play in two years, saw a 2-0 lead fritter away and and had to hang on to defeat the scrappy Hurricanes in five sets, 25-19, 25-22, 14-25, 20-25, 15-8.
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The win advances St. Thomas to its fifth consecutive state title game as the Raiders will travel to West Port High School in Ocala next Saturday (Nov. 12) for a rematch with Tampa Plant, which they defeated in straight sets a year ago for the title.
Aquinas (29-2), ranked No. 18 nationally by USA Today, will also be looking to become only the third team in Miami-Dade or Broward County history to win three consecutive state titles, matching Cardinal Gibbons (three times) and Pine Crest (2002-03).
“Wow, was this ever tough,” said senior outside hitter Brooke Bauer, who finished with 20 kills and 15 digs and will head to Pepperdine to play beach volleyball next year. “I think the first two games we were really focused and probably got too comfortable and definitely lost our focus because since Las Vegas [where St. Thomas suffered both losses] we hadn’t really been challenged. Then all of sudden we dropped that fourth set and they had all the momentum. It took everything we had to dig down and summon up the will to get it turned back in our direction.”
After the Raiders cruised through the first two sets, Manatee (16-9) came storming back, dominating the third set — which marked Aquinas’ first lost set since its state-title victory over Winter Springs two years ago.
The Hurricanes continued to make some near-impossible saves in the fourth-set win and had all the momentum going for them while the Raiders were back on their heels.
“We were a little nervous going into that last set because we really haven’t been taken to the limit like this in a long time, but we did a great job of working to find a way to get it done and summon up everything we had,” said senior outside hitter and North Carolina State commit Allison Marble, who finished with 21 kills and 15 digs. “Brooke and had a talk after the fourth set and just told each other we’re senior leaders on this team and need to show the way.”
Manatee led 5-4 in the final set before the Raiders scored four consecutive points to open up a little space with an 8-5 lead and pulled away from there, Marble’s thundering kill shot closing it out.
“I told them, ‘Listen, if this is going to be the time, if it’s not going to be now, it’s not going to happen,’ ” St. Thomas Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski said. “I just told them take it one point at a time, this is our gym, and that you need to bring it right here and right now.”
Asked about the possibility of a third consecutive state title next week, Zielinski’s eyes lit up with excitement.
“Wow, what an opportunity we have in front of us now,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years and something like this doesn’t come around very often and is really hard to do. We’re just thrilled and relieved after [Saturday] that we’re going to have that opportunity next week, especially with these girls because they’ve been special to me not only on the court but off the court as well. I appreciate what it takes and to beat a team like Manatee to get there.”