Four area teams vie for final four

Volleyball playoff collage
Williston, Santa Fe, Oak Hall and Union County will play in the regional finals on Tuesday night. (Photos by C.J. Gish)

Tonight, four area volleyball teams are one win away from advancing to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) state semifinals in their respective classifications.

In Class 2A, Oak Hall School will host Christ’s Church Academy (Jacksonville) at 6 p.m.

After making it to the state semifinals last year, the host Eagles lost Sophia Aulisio (last year’s Gainesville Sun Small School Player of the Year) and two other All-Area seniors to graduation, which was going to create many questions about how their line-up would develop.

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“If you had asked me at the start of the summer to predict how this team was going to do this season, my prognostications would not have come close to the reality that these girls have experienced and earned,” said Oak Hall coach Perry McDonald. “Those questions swelled into panic inducing mysteries in July when we were surprised by the unexpected transfer of two other players. I think this team had its gut check very early on and with those challenges came opportunities that many young and inexperienced players were eager to try and fill.”

When the team assembled in July to get a few workouts in before attending the University of Tampa team camp, McDonald knew that, “there was a monumental amount of teaching and learning that had to occur.

“These girls jumped in with both feet and never looked back,” McDonald said. “By the time we finished the Tampa team camp a week later they didn’t look like the same squad. They had taken their licks against some of the best teams in the state, refused to back down, and started finding ways to win against more physically gifted and experienced teams.”

McDonald said that in his 20-plus years of coaching he had never seen such rapid growth and development over such a short period of time.

Now, three months later, the host Eagles have achieved a 24-4 overall record, a championship at the 16-team Keswick Christian Invitational, a district title, the No. 1 seed in Class 2A Region 1, and they are coming off a thrilling 5-set win versus Harvest Community School (Jacksonville) last Friday night to advance to the Elite 8. 

“The next task is to take the lessons and confidence that these girls have earned from these experiences and refine them into something stronger and better with the hopes of winning Tuesday night and heading back to the state final four,” McDonald said.

It’s the second time this season that the two teams have met. Oak Hall defeated Christ’s Church Academy, 2-1, at home on Aug. 27.

The visiting Eagles (18-5), who won the 3A state title in 2017, are led by Nadia Mortensen with 246 kills. The junior had a double-double (11 kills, 20 digs) in a sweep of No. 3 seed St. Johns Country Day (Orange Park) in the regional semifinals.

“Christ’s Church is an outstanding defensive team with a deceptive and elite setter that distributes the ball very effectively to a balanced line-up of front row attackers,” McDonald said. “We must play exceptional defense and be consistently aggressive with our serving and serve receive if we are going to have an opportunity to win.”

Junior outside hitter Pene Moser, who leads Oak Hall with 351 kills, had a team high 25 kills, 4 blocks and 13 digs in the regional semifinals.

Tonight at 7 p.m. in Class 1A, a pair of area teams led by first-year coaches are one win away from a state semifinal appearance.

“It means the world to me to keep advancing with this group of coaches and players that we call family,” said Williston coach Kevin Tiller, whose team rallied from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Newberry in the regional semifinals. “From day one this group began a journey that has been full of ups and downs, but these ladies just keep working. Just like in the Newberry match on Friday we went down two sets and they never quit. They came out and went back to work in the next three sets to let us move on. I am so proud with how far this program has come this year. Special thanks to all the coaches and players.”

Up next in the 1A-Region 4 Final is a rematch at home against No. 3 seed Glades Day (Belle Glade), which swept the top seeded Red Devils (18-10) to win the 1A-District 8 tournament.

“I really believe the biggest difference in the first match against Glades Day was our lack of being able to control the net,” Tiller said. “They had us out of system a lot throughout the whole match. Not being able to get a touch on the ball kept us from being able to serve/receive the way we wanted as well. Still as bad as we were playing, I love the effort and attitude that our girls kept playing with.”

Tiller said that in order for the Red Devils to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 2017 that his team has got to play from start to finish.

“We have to play with great energy and emotion throughout the entire match,” he said. “We always remind the girls that they play for this point and nothing else. Our fans showed up and were loud last Friday against Newberry. We will need them once again as we have the opportunity to host Glades Day. It has definitely been a luxury for us to be able to play at home through this run.”

Junior Grace Dola leads Williston with 252 kills, including 17 kills against Newberry, while senior Peyton Pelham leads the Gators (15-10) with 332 kills.

Union County (Lake Butler), which is ranked fifth in the state in Class 1A by MaxPreps, defeated Branford, 3-1, in the other regional semifinal to advance.

The No. 2 seed Tigers (19-7) will travel to Monticello to face third ranked Aucilla Christian (21-3) in a matchup of top five teams in a Class 1A-Region 3 Final.

“It means a lot to me as a coach and to us as a team,” Union County coach Tifani Knox said about playing in tonight’s region final at top seed Aucilla Christian (Monticello). “The girls have worked hard all season to get to this point and want to continue to push through the playoffs.”

The Tigers, who are also seeking their first state semifinal appearance since 2017, are led by senior Jaycee Davis with 331 kills, including 13 kills against Branford.

“This group of girls is special, they have learned how to dig deep and fight through tough situations by working together as a team,” Knox said. “I am so proud of all of them and know that they can accomplish anything. This season has been such a positive experience and watching the girls grow as players and people is amazing.”

The Warriors are led by senior middle Lena Kimmell (233 kills), who leads the state with 165 blocks. She had 14 kills in a sweep of Hilliard in the regional semifinals.

“We have to serve well, play smart and use all of our hitters,” Knox said. “Keeping the defense on their toes and blocking well is also important. The girls have to stay high energy, work together and keep positive attitudes to be victorious.”

The area’s best chance for a state champion comes in Class 4A.

Defending 4A state champion Santa Fe (Alachua) breezed past Astronaut (Titusville) in a Class 4A-Region 2 semifinal last Thursday.

Reigning Miss Volleyball Jalyn Stout finished with 16 kills, 12 assists, three digs, and three aces, giving her 493 kills this season.

“We are just trying to stay focused,” said Stout after the game. “We are taking every game and set one step at a time, staying together, being loud, keep up our energy. We are really staying focused all together.”

The top seed Raiders (27-2) will host No. 2 seed Bishop Moore (Orlando) in tonight’s region final. Sophomore Anika Groom leads the Hornets (17-10) with 244 kills, followed by sophomore Leah McDonald with 197.

The first serve is at 6 p.m.

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