Sometimes the final stroke is the hardest part.
Nikki Lyons tried to take something off her kill attempt and wound up driving it into the net. Next came a net violation, prompting a timeout Saturday with St. Thomas Aquinas clinging to what was now a two-point advantage.
Finally Derry Costigan put a set in Lyons’ wheelhouse. This one went off a Winter Springs blocker and spun to the floor inbounds, with Lyons and her teammates soon falling to the floor in elation.
The wait was over. After three years of coming so close in the Class 7A volleyball playoffs, these Raiders finally could call themselves state champions.
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“It honestly didn’t feel real,” said Lyons, who lifted the trophy high after a 25-22 fourth set clinched the title.
“I’ve never been so happy. To come here every year and not quite get the result in the end — it [stunk], honestly. Every single year. So to finally be the one to make the last point … it was the greatest feeling ever.”
The Raiders (28-4) slugged back after Winter Springs, ranked No.3 in the state by MaxPreps, won the first set 25-20 and ran out to a 17-10 lead in the second. A few points later, a belated call against the Bears seemed to turn the tide as St.Thomas captured 10 of the final 12 points.
That gave the Raiders a 25-22 win, and a 25-20 third set put them one step from the crown.
“It was all about grit,” coach Lisa Zielinski said. “That was our theme this year, and they were pretty gritty today.”
Lyons, headed to Pepperdine after graduation, led the way with 24 kills. Sophomore Brook Bauer added 14 kills, and Providence signee Kara Mason had eight kills, 17 digs and was the server during some of the Raiders’ key rallies. Costigan, a freshman setter, tallied 49 assists.
St.Thomas captured its third state volleyball championship, joining Class 5A trophies won in 1995 and 2004.
While a decade-long drought was one thing, it was intensified by how close the Raiders had come. Each of the previous three years had ended at the final four, with two semifinal losses sandwiched around a 2012 championship loss to Venice.
“To have them accomplish that goal this year is huge,” said Zielinski. “For the seniors to go out that way and the younger ones to see what that’s like and try to emulate it [next year], I think it’s been a great experience.”
Winter Springs, with only one senior on its roster, was led by 26 kills from junior Payton Caffrey. But the Bears (28-4) couldn’t match St. Thomas’ depth in attack, and couldn’t wrest the momentum back after seeing its bubble burst in the second set.
Elsa Peterson’s slam seemingly had given Winter Springs a 21-15 lead, with the Bears preparing to serve. Suddenly, the opposite-side official blew his whistle, pointed at Peterson and reversed the point, returning serve back to Mason.
Lyons was responsible for five points in the 10-2 run that ended the set, tallying three kills and two blocks.
“I’d like to see the instant replay, and I will eventually,” Winter Springs coach Kimberly Vach said. “They took that away from us, and we lost our momentum.”
Said Bears captain Sally Fernandez: “Our energy died and it was difficult to get it back, even when we went to the next sets.”
St. Thomas also came from behind in the third set by winning the final six points. And even when the Raiders led 23-16 in the fourth, they still needed that finishing touch.
Winter Springs won three consecutive points before Lyons swatted down a kill to make it 24-19. Bailey Johnson’s kill returned serve to the Bears, and Costigan started mistiming her connection with Lyons.
Costigan said Lyons “saw that I was struggling trying to figure out how to get a good set to her. She kind of helped me to calm down.”
Lyons said, “I think we were all very anxious for that last point. I think we were almost trying too hard to make the perfect play.”
The Raiders just needed to get one last ball down. Lyons finally did, creating the perfect ending.