They saved the best for last on Thursday night at Red Bank's Susan Ingram Thurman Gymnasium.
The top-seeded Red Bank Lionettes faced third-seeded Central in the championship match of the District 6-AA volleyball tournament and brother, was it ever a dandy.
In a match that had more momentum swings than a cat has lives, it was Central who did the celebrating after a pressure-packed, heart-stopping 3-2 victory in a match that could have gone either way...several times.
But it was that never-say-die group of young ladies wearing the purple and gold who carried the championship plaque back to Harrison after a 25-18, 17-25, 25-19, 26-28, 15-12 victory.
These two teams had split during the regular season with each team winning on its own home court. They have had some classic battles along the way, but nothing to compare with Thursday's slugfest.
As Central basketball coach Rick Rogers commented during the fourth set, "I feel like I'm in Manila," he said, referring to The Thrilla In Manila, one of the greatest heavyweight boxing matches of all time between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali that was another slugfest in years past.
"We did it," Central's first-year coach Robin Moore blurted after her team had captured its first district tournament title in recent memory and improved to 27-11 in the process.
"It's always hard to be another team on their home court, but these girls just played their hearts out and they refused to be denied. We knew that we didn't want to give up. It was challenging at times and we had a lot of momentum, but Red Bank has a great team and we knew they would fight.
"This team had outstanding talent when I took over this year, but it's been really nice watching them mature and get more mentally tough as the season has progressed.
"Tiffany Estep was the key for us tonight. She's a great leader and she was on tonight. She was running a fever all day and probably shouldn't have played, but she was determined to be out there," Moore continued as folks with cell phones just kept taking pictures of the post-match celebration.
Estep did indeed have a great match. She was later named the tournament MVP after recording 29 kills and 20 digs while adding a half-dozen blocks.
"There are no words to express just how I feel right now," she said as sweat dripped off her brow.
"We knew we wanted to win and we were confident that we could beat Red Bank, but it's an unbelievable feeling. I had to play for my coaches and my teammates, but this is by far my best match of the year. It was just a blessing from God," the slender senior nodded.
The Lady Pounders came out firing in the first set as Estep got eight kills to spark the 25-18 win.
Red Bank then scored the first two points of the second set and never trailed as they evened the match with their 25-17 win.
Central then regained its momentum with a 25-19 win in the third and looked ready to win in four, but Red Bank had other ideas.
With Rebekah Hill recording a kill, Central's lead was 16-4 before the Lionettes called a timeout.
That's when Red Bank began an unbelievable comeback. Kiki Adkins had an ace and then three more service points to make it 16-9.
Central then extended its lead to 19-11, forcing Red Bank coach Mandi Munn to call her final timeout. With the Lionettes scratching and clawing for every point, they slowly battled their way back into contention.
Hannah Wilson reeled off five straight service points to get Red Bank within 22-20. Central was at match point with a 24-21 lead, but Jasmine Simpson and Caitlyn Jenkins had back-to-back kills before back-to-back unforced errors by the Lady Pounders gave Red Bank a 25-24 lead.
A kill by Hill tied the score for the final time at 26 before two more unforced errors gave Red Bank a most improbable comeback to even the score at two sets apiece.
Red Bank bolted to a 7-3 lead in the decisive fifth set, but the Lionettes called a timeout after Central battled back to a 9-9 tie.
Two unforced errors allowed Red Bank to take an 11-9 lead, but Estep then recorded three kills in the next four points to give Central a 13-12 lead.
Skylar Wolfe, who like Estep played her best match of the season, gave the Lady Pounders a 14-12 lead before the match ended when a Red Bank return went wide.
"I'm really really proud of these young ladies, regardless of the loss. We've gone back and forth in both of our previous matches, so who knows what will happen on Tuesday," Munn said, knowing that it's real likely that these same two teams could meet for the Region championship at Central.
"Central capitalized on our mistakes and they earned it, but Tiffany is hard to stop. She's tough.
"We knew we had to work together after losing the third set, but I don't think I've ever seen a comeback like that. We were out of timeouts when we were down 19-11 and I told them it was all on their backs. Somehow we were able to battle back and win that set.
"The good news is that we can still host a sectional match. We advanced to the region and that's the main thing," Munn concluded with a smile.
Chasidy Ainslie had 33 assists for the Lady Pounders while HIll finished with 15 kills and 22 digs. Sam Scott contributed 22 digs while Wolfe ended the evening with 12 kills, 11 digs and two blocks.
Abby Graham was the leader for Red Bank with 22 digs, 18 assists, two kills and two aces.
Autumn Babb had 27 digs while Wilson finished with 17 digs. Jenkins ended the match with 11 kills while Simpson followed with nine.
Chasidy Ainslie -- 33 assists, 4 digs, 2 aces;
Tiffany Estep -- 29 kills, 20 digs, 6 blocks;
Skylar Wolfe -- 12 kills, 11 digs, 2 blocks;
Lexie Ainslie -- 20 assists, 3 digs, 1 ace;
Rebekah Hill -- 15 kills, 22 digs, 1 ace;
Adrian McClurg -- 3 kills, 2 blocks;
Sam Scott -- 22 digs.
RED BANK STATS:
Abby Graham -- 2 kills, 22 digs, 18 assists, 2 aces;
Kiki Adkins -- 10 digs, 2 aces;
Autumn Babb -- 27 digs;
Caitlyn Jenkins -- 11 kills, 1 block, 7 digs;
Allison Walker -- 5 kills;
Rachel Thornbury -- 11 digs, 9 assists;
Hannah Wilson -- 17 digs;
Dani Usher -- 3 kills, 2 blocks;
Jasmine Simpson -- 9 kills, 2 blocks;
Marjorie Smith -- 4 kills, 3 blocks, 4 digs.
ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM: Skylar Wolfe, Sam Scott, Rebekah Hill and MVP Tiffany Estep (Central); Abby Graham, Caitlyn Jenkins, Jasmine Simpson (Red Bank); Jessica Green, Ciera Taylor, Tatyona Staten (Hixson); Hannah Eldridge, Rabbit Lawrence (East Ridge).
(email John Hunt at email@example.com)