Williston rallies to advance to state semifinals for first time in five years

Members of the Williston volleyball team celebrate with students after the Red Devils' come-from-behind, 3-2, victory over Glades Day Tuesday night at the Devils' Den. Williston will now play in the state semifinals for the first time in five years. 

WILLISTON — It felt a little like deja vu Tuesday night inside the Devils' Den. 

The top-seeded Williston Red Devils fell behind (2-0) early on in the Region 4-1A girls' volleyball Final to the No. 3 Glades Day Gators. 

It was a repeat of what had occurred Friday night when Williston hosted No. 4 Newberry. The Panthers jumped out to a (2-0) lead, putting the Red Devils with their backs against the wall. 

And just like Friday, Williston managed to fight its way back into Tuesday night's game against the Gators, ultimately coming back and winning the contest in five sets (19-25, 17-25, 25-19, 28-26, 15-9) to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2017. 

"I think we can call them the cardiac kids I guess," first-year head coach Kevin Tiller said. 

"They have done everything we've asked them to do," he said. "Our backs have been against the wall for two straight nights, and they just pick their selves up and they've moved on. They've just done an incredible job."

The Red Devils (19-10) fell behind quickly in the opening set after Glades Day (15-11) raced out to a 6-0 lead. After a Williston timeout, the Red Devils put together a 6-2 run to cut the deficit to 8-6. 

However, the Gators would respond with a run of their own again, putting their lead at 13-6 after a second Williston timeout. The Red Devils would battle back and put together an 8-3 run, forcing Glades Day to call a timeout with a 24-19 lead. But a kill by Peyton Pelham would end up sealing the set win for the Gators. 

Williston and Glades Day would go back-and-forth in the early portion of the second set. The Red Devils would respond to a 3-0 run by the Gators with a 4-1 run of their own to even the score at 14-14. The rally forced Glades Day to call a timeout. 

Out of the break, the Gators would put together a 3-0 run before a timeout from Williston. However, Glades Day kept its momentum going, closing out the set on a 10-0 run behind a handful of kills from Pelham, Brielle George and Olivia Sanford to give them the set win. 

"We have yet to play a team all year that has controlled us at the net," Tiller said. "For five sets, the three in the district championship and the two in this match, they hit that two high ball so well in the middle of the floor."

"Their number one (Pelham), she is an incredible middle," he said. 

The Red Devils would need to find a spark in the third set in order to keep the game and their season alive. This would come at the hands of junior Grace Dola, who had roughly six kills early on in the set to give Williston a 12-5 lead. 

However, the Gators wouldn't go down without a fight, as they managed to cut their deficit to 16-11, leading to a timeout from the Red Devils. But Glades Day couldn't climb out of the early hole, as Dola's performance carried Williston to the set victory. 

"Friday night, in the third set (and) fourth set, she put us on her back and carried us," Tiller said of Dola. "She did the same thing again tonight." 

The Gators and Red Devils would go back-and-forth again in the early portion of the fourth set. After getting behind 12-9, Glades Day managed to fight back and even the score at 15-15. The Gators built a two-point lead behind a kill from Sanford, resulting in a Williston timeout. 

The Red Devils, however, fought back to even the score again. Glades Day would then go on a 4-0 run to put themselves one point away from a set victory. But again, Williston answered. And the Red Devils' deficit was cut to one, 24-23. 

Following another back-and-forth sequence, Williston would end up taking the set, 28-26, behind a kill from senior Karley Jerrels that sent the Devils' Den into a pandemonium.  

"Those two outside hitters have carried us all year," Tiller said of Dola and Jerrels. 

"Karley, when we needed her, it was the right tip, it was the right spot shot (and) it was the right kill," he said. "I can not be more prouder of them."

The Red Devils would keep the momentum going entering the fifth and final set, as Williston went on a 5-0 run to open things open up. The Gators would battle back and cut the deficit to 14-9 leading up to match point. But a few kills from Dola and Jerrels would be just enough for Williston to hold on for the set and game win. 

"It's incredible," Tiller said when asked what it feels like to know they are heading to the Final Four. "When I came here last October, I told the girls I said, 'hey. We want to rebuild the culture here. We want to get back to where they were in 2017.'"

"It's been almost six years since anybody has been to a Final Four here, but we're going," he said. 

Dola finished the game with a team-high 33 kills while Jerrels managed to add 12 more. 

With the victory, the Red Devils now move onto the state semifinals. Williston is the No. 4 seed and will travel to top-seeded Liberty County (26-2, 4-1) Friday. First serve is set for 7 p.m. 

The winner will face either No. 2 Baker or No. 3 Union County in the Class 1A State Championship on Friday, Nov. 11 at Polk State College in Winter Haven. 

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