After looking like it could deliver a state championship-winning sweep early, Westminster Christian faltered and then recovered, topping Orlando Lake Highland Prep 25-21, 25-23, 16-25, 13-25, 15-12 to capture the FHSAA Class 5A title on Thursday at West Port High School.
"We are beyond thrilled," coach Julie Doan Kuremuna said. "I'm so proud. We worked so hard to give this to our seniors as they end their careers here."
Behind USF commitment Nikkia Benitez's 11 kills, Westminster Christian (29-4) controlled the first set, jumping out to a 15-7 lead that forced a timeout from LHP coach Erin Fleming, a former University of Florida libero.
In part because of back-to-back kills by junior Taylor O'Neal, the Highlanders cut the deficit by to 21-17 before the two teams equally traded eight points to close out the game.
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Lake Highland Prep (20-9) started quickly in the second, taking a 9-7 lead, before the Warriors went on a 7-1 run to reclaim momentum and move ahead 14-10.
From there, LHP forced a tie at 18 before Benitez and the Highlanders' Grace Allen traded kills. Then, Westminster Christian moved ahead 22-19 before Lake Highland Prep cut the margin to 23-22.
But Priscilla Hernandez pounded two kills in the next three points to give the Warriors a 2-0 advantage.
The third set would prove difficult for Westminster Christian, which was looking to win its 10th consecutive match and capture its first state championship since 2013.
Unwilling to fall without a struggle, the Highlanders took a 13-6 lead in the third in great part because of four kills from sophomore outside hitter Kelly Markowski and two more from O'Neal. Eventually, they moved ahead 18-10, forcing a timeout by Kuremuna.
After the next eight points were split, Lake Highland got kills from O'Neal on two of its next three points to cut Westminster Christian's lead to two sets to one.
The Highlanders controlled all of the fourth set, jumping out to a 5-0 lead on the service of Cierra Jenkins and never seeing the Warriors closer than four points behind from there to force a fifth set.
"We know we don't play our best when we get frustrated, so (after dropping the third and fourth sets), we knew we had to play with an even keel," senior Gabrielle Miller said. "We had to stay confident and organized."
Lake Highland Prep's 6-foot-2 freshman middle blocker Lauren Gips opened the finale with three quick kills, as the Highlanders took a 5-1 lead. But Westminster Christian came back, tying the score at six before the teams traded the next four points.
Then, the Warriors took a 9-8 lead before Lake Highland Prep got a kill from O'Neal to make it 9-9. But Westminster Christian then scored two straight to go ahead 11-9 and force a timeout.
After trading points, Benitez delivered a powerful kill to give the Warriors a 13-11 lead. She followed with another kill to set up match point.
But the Highlanders got a kill from Gips before a hitting error on the final point gave Westminster Christian the win.
"You come to the finals for a match like this," Fleming said. "It doesn't get much better than this, though, obviously, we wanted the win.
"But all credit goes to them. They made great adjustments and came through in the end."
IF YOU GO
What: The state girls’ volleyball finals.
Where: West Port High School, 3733 SW 80 Ave., Ocala.
Admission: $9 per day; Parking: $10 for cars, $50 for fan buses.
Thursday’s results - Class 5A: Westminster Christian d. Orlando Lake Highland Prep, 3-2 (25-21, 25-23, 16-25, 13-25, 15-12); 4A: Orlando First Academy d. Palm Beach Gardens Benjamin 3-0 (26-24, 25-20, 25-17).
Friday’s schedule - Class 2A: Ocala St. John Lutheran vs. Winter Park Geneva, 6:05; Class 3A: Gainesville St. Francis vs. Naples Seacrest Country Day, 8:05.
Saturday’s schedule - Class 1A: Sneads vs. Newberry, 10:05 a.m.; Class 9A: Oviedo vs. Boca Raton, 12:35; Class 8A: St. Thomas Aquinas vs. Tampa Plant, 3:05; Class 6A: Ponte Vedra vs. Orlando Bishop Moore, 5:35; Class 7A: Ocala Vanguard vs. Stuart South Fork, 8:05.