Having fallen short in last year’s Class 7A volleyball state final and the semifinals a year earlier, St. Thomas Aquinas took the court Thursday with the words “Unfinished Business” emblazoned on their warmups.
It’ll have to remain unfinished for at least another 12 months.
Twice extended to extra points by unheralded Oviedo, the Raiders wound up losing both games in a semifinal exit that left no less an empty feeling than before.
“It’s hard. That’s three years in a row of going home early,” coach Lisa Zielinski said after a four-game ouster ended Aquinas’ season. “It just gets old. It gets old for me; I’m sure it is for the girls that have been here for three [years].”
After splitting the first two games, Oviedo captured the third 33-31 when Jane Early’s block put away a marathon game in which Aquinas had staved off five previous game points. Likewise, the Raiders came up empty on three chances to take the game.
Oviedo then took the fourth game 27-25, winning six of the final seven points after the Raiders stood on the brink of forcing a fifth game with a 24-21 lead.
“We had the lead and we gave it up,” said junior Kimiko Bennett. “It was more mental [mistakes] than anything.”
Nikki Lyons led the Raiders (28-3) with 29 kills and 15 digs.
Aquinas had not lost since early October, during a fifth-place run at the ASICS Challenge in Chicago. The Raiders came to Kissimmee on a 14-match winning streak, forced beyond three games just once in district and regional competition.
Oviedo (21-10) advanced to its first state final since 2001, where Naples Gulf Coast awaits in Friday night’s title match. Injury and illness had left the Lions at just 9-7 on Oct. 1 before they started to gel.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words,” coach Jen Darty said. “My girls played out of their minds. They never stopped fighting.
“St. Thomas is a very good team. We knew they were going to get their kills; they were going to get their points. Our focus was just on our side of the court and working together.”
Aquinas cruised to a 25-21 win in the opening game, taking control with a 7-2 run midway through the game. The Raiders also took the first four points of the second game before Oviedo rose up.
The Lions won the second game 25-21, then stunned Aquinas by jumping out to a 9-2 lead in the third. Oviedo still was in control 17-10 before the Raiders stormed back to tie it by winning eight of the next nine points.
An Aquinas net violation set up Oviedo’s first game point at 24-23, only for the teams to exchange the next eight points before the Raiders won two in a row to gain the advantage at 28-27. But Oviedo’s Courtney Furlong (27 kills) dinked one over two Raider blockers to start another swap of points.
Brooke Bauer’s kill gave the Raiders a 31-30 lead, but Mackenzie Zielinski’s serve went long and Early won the final two points when she stuffed back Aquinas’ kill attempts.
“You only get a few chances,” Lisa Zielinski said, “and you’ve got to take advantage of those chances.”