Having come through the ultimate playing-with-fire situation one round earlier, going an extra set didn’t seem that precarious in Pine Crest’s Class 4A volleyball state semifinal on Wednesday.
Just in case, though, it served as a timely wake-up call.
The Panthers regrouped after dropping the third set to Tampa’s Academy of Holy Names, using a nine-point run midway through the fourth, to roll into Thursday night’s championship game by scores of 25-20, 25-16, 23-25, 25-16.
“I think the most nervous I got was after the third set when we lost,” said Sydney Vreeland, who emphatically slammed the door with two blocks and a kill in Pine Crest’s closing five-point flourish.
The Panthers (23-7) will try to put a fourth state title in their trophy case when they square off against P.K. Yonge at 7:05 p.m. The Gainesville school raised its record to 29-2 with a three-set domination of Pensacola Catholic.
“Obviously, our first goal was to beat Holy Names, which we did,” said outside hitter Ariana Altieri, who led the Panthers with 16 kills. “And then I was thinking about P.K. Yonge.
I know they’re a very good team. I’m very aware of that. I just think we need to come out tomorrow and fight like it’s our last game ever.”
You might recall Pine Crest already had to do that once simply to get to Silver Spurs Arena. The Panthers stood one point from elimination in the regional final, trailing Ransom Everglades 14-11 in the third set, before reeling off the final five points in an improbable finish.
“We came through that,” Vreeland said. “It’s really important for us to continue [battling through] in this tournament.”
Vreeland did a little bit of everything Wednesday, finishing with 12 kills, nine digs and five blocks. Kylie Bruder’s 41 assists also played a big role, keeping Holy Names off balance with a mix of misdirection and early sets.
“Their setter did a good job of confusing us,” said Jaguars outside hitter Avery Stanechewski. “She’d go one way and draw us over, then send it to the other side. They’d get an open net and make the kill.”
Bruder also caught the Jaguars on more than one occasion by popping the ball over the net instead of setting it for Altieri or Lauren Houle.
“I would try to do it on longer rallies,” Bruder said. “There was one I pushed to the corner because I knew they were out of position. So I’d just kind of push it to the corner and get us a point.”
Pine Crest returns to waters it hasn’t seen in a while, reaching its first championship game since 2007. It’s been more than a decade since it won the three titles in succession from 2001-03.
“When I took over the program [in 2012], I knew you can’t win right off the bat,” coach Alberto Sturgeon said. “I kept reminding myself that it’s a three-year process, and it literally was a three-year process. This was the year we had to do it for this program to continue to grow.”