LECANTO — For the first time in program history, the Seven Rivers Christian volleyball team will play in the last possible match of the season.
The Warriors (24-3), in the Final Four for the first time since 2000, knocked off defending state champion Geneva (13-11) on Saturday in an epic five-set battle at Warrior Gymnasium to reach Friday’s Class 2A championship match at noon in Fort Myers against Lake Worth Christian (26-4). The Defenders defeated Seacrest Country Day in four sets Saturday in the other state semifinal.
After somehow fighting off seven match points in the fourth set, the Warriors had all the momentum heading into the fifth and pulled away late for the thrilling 25-20, 27-29, 20-25. 35-33, 15-11 triumph.
“Going into that fifth set, I just told the girls ‘We’ve been here before, we’ve seen crazy before and been through crazy before.’ You add up everything this team’s done this season alone, but then you factor in year after year what this group has been doing, oddly enough I felt pretty comfortable in that fifth set,” head coach Steve Stack said. “Obviously Geneva is great, so they kept it a nail-biter the whole way through. But once we knew it was going into the fifth set and it’s fight or flight, they fought and got it done. I’m so proud of them. To get into the state finals — I don’t know anything about Lake Worth, we’ll start working on that next — you can’t be any more proud of a team than this.”
Once Leighton Stack hammered down the last of her team-high 29 kills to end the match, the Warrior players collapsed to the floor and into each other’s arms. One of the first embraces was between sisters Allison and Jennah Kay Phillips.
“She’s my pride and joy on this team. She’s my best friend,” Allison said of her younger sister.
Madison Peters, one of four seniors on the team who had felt the pain of three straight regional final losses, is living out her dream.
“It’s absolutely a dream come true. I’ve thought about this since I was a little kid, winning a state championship, or even just going to state,” she said. “I would watch big girls play volleyball and now it’s me and I can’t believe it.”
So now the Warriors know next week will be their last one together as a team, a fact coach Stack hopes gives players the freedom to go all-out for the title.
“(Senior setter) Jane Jeffes told me one time, ‘The anxiety of not knowing if it’s your last game or not, that’s what’s tough.’ Well, we know this is going to be our last game together at state, so we might as well give it everything we got,” he said.
The match couldn’t have started much better for the Warriors, as two kills from Leighton Stack and one apiece from Peters, Jeffes and Katelyn Kelso helped give them a 12-6 lead. But the Knights won seven of the next eight points to knot the set at 13-all. A block and kill from Peters gave the momentum back to Seven Rivers and they never trailed again in the first set, with a Jeffes tip kill ending it.
“I wanted them to play focused and not over-pumped and overexcited in that first set and they did. They were cool, calm and collected,” coach Stack said. “It looked like they were ready for the challenge that was ahead of them. To start that way and get that first one in was huge.”
Allison Phillips said the first set victory just reinforced the team’s thoughts entering the match.
“We knew we could hang with them from start to finish,” she said.
The tide turns
The Knights were the ones to start fast in the second set, racing out to a 12-7 lead. But the Warriors rattled off eight straight points to go on top 15-12. Peters had two blocks and a kill, Leighton Stack added two kills and Kelso had an ace and a kill during that stretch. Three more kills by Leighton Stack made it a 20-14 Warrior lead, but Geneva’s Connelly Renfrow took over at the net and hammered down several kills to help the Knights go on top 24-23. Seven Rivers fought off a pair of set points and had a set point of their own erased, before consecutive kills from Geneva’s Renfrow and Olivia Kyle gave the marathon second set to the Knights, 29-27.
The Warriors fell into a 7-3 hole in the third set, but chipped away until a Peters block gave the home team a 14-13 lead. But once again, Geneva’s Renfrow stepped up and had nine kills in the set — including the final three points — to give the Knights a two sets to one lead.
“That team’s legit. We know it, Geneva knows it. So battling like that in the second, I wasn’t surprised by that, because they have a lot of firepower,” coach Stack said of the Knights. “The third set is the one where I started to get worried for the girls, because they started to look tired after a set that long.”
If the second set was a marathon, the fourth was an ultramarathon.
It started out harmless enough with the teams trading the lead back and forth. Four Warrior errors in a row led to a 12-7 Knights lead and the home squad looked in trouble. But five quick points — a pair on Kelso aces — tied the set 12-12. Two kills from Kelso later in the set gave the Warriors a 20-16 lead and the full-house gym was rocking. Momentum switched again, however, and the Knights earned their first match point at 24-23.
A Geneva error wiped out that first match point and kills from Leighton Stack took care of the next two. Another Leighton Stack kill gave the Warriors set point, but an error and Geneva kill gave the Knights match point No. 4. A Geneva error got rid of that one as well and a Peters kill moments later erased the fifth match point. Geneva match point No. 6 was also saved by an unforced error and after Renfrow hit consecutive kills to earn match point No. 7, the Warriors went back to Leighton Stack and she delivered with three kills in a row to finally end the set, 35-33.
“I was fired up and we were just ready to win the set, so do whatever it takes to put it down,” Leighton Stack said.
Coach Stack said the team’s character shined in that set.
“That is straight up, never count these girls out. You just can’t count these girls out. Granted, you would love to not be in that position, but push these girls against the wall, they come out fighting,” he said. “And they passed better after point 25 than they did earlier. You’re in extra numbers and you’re passing that well, it’s hard on the other team and puts our girls in position to do it.”
Peters said she may have looked calm on the outside, but her insides told a different story.
“Honestly, I didn’t even really keep my composure. I thought I was going to throw up the whole time and have a heart attack. I’ve never felt anything like that before,” she said.
Kelso added, “Our mental never got in the way to interfere with us winning. We just kept battling back. We just played well as a team. We knew we had to fight to win it, because it was our last set if we didn’t win it.”
Allison Phillips said a good attitude goes a long way.
“We’re a really positive team. We never get down, none of us are rude to each other and we’re very good under pressure,” she said. “We always have people telling us they’ve never seen a team so good under pressure.”
Jeffes said, “You just have to take every single point one at a time and nobody gave up. Every single person hustled. You just have to keep calm no matter what.”
Many of the Seven Rivers players fell to the floor after Leighton Stack’s kill ended the set and the emotions were visible. But they had to dust themselves off and get ready for a fifth set.
“You just kind of tap into your volleyball instincts, you’re so exhausted,” Jeffes said.
Finishing it off
Kelso got the Warriors off on the right foot with a pair of kills for a quick 2-0 lead. A pair of kills from Leighton Stack and a Peters kill made it a 6-3 advantage.
“It was so important,” Kelso said of the early lead. “Our fifth set only goes to 15, so if you’re down by two at the beginning, then it could go mental and you could just go downhill from there.”
The Knights did fight back to tie the set at 7-all, but a Leighton Stack ace, Kelso kill and Peters block gave the Warriors a 12-9 lead, three points away from the finals.
But the defending champs would not make it easy. A Geneva kill and Warrior error made it 12-11, but an error by the Knights gave Seven Rivers a 13-11 advantage. A Kelso ace gave the Warriors match point and forced Geneva to call a timeout. Moments later, Leighton Stack hammered down kill No. 29 for the Final Four victory.
“Those last two games were just pure grit and perseverance. No one gave up for one point. I think that’s really what got us here,” Jeffes said.
Peters said they were running on fumes after the epic fourth set, but weren’t going to lose the chance to continue playing together one more week.
“I’m not going to lie. We were tired. We were really tired,” she said. “But we just said ‘Guys, we’re winning this game. We’re not going to let the ball hit the floor and we’re going to kill all of our hits and that’s what we did.”
Stack had 14 digs, five assists and three aces to go with her 29 kills. Kelso had 16 kills, 21 digs, five aces and three assists, Peters had 14 digs, eight big blocks, six kills, two aces and an assist, Jeffes handed out 32 assists to go with 21 digs and three kills, Allison Phillips had 34 digs and an ace, Julia Shipes added six digs and five kills and Jennah Kay Phillips had 11 digs.