The Boyd-Buchanan Lady Buccaneers finished as the Class A state runner-up last year in volleyball, but they basically had to start from scratch this year after a majority of last year's team graduated.
It's been a slow climb back into contention, but the Lady Bucs have kept getting better since the middle of August and they made another hugh step forward by winning the Region 3-A championship on Monday night at Sale Creek's McEwen Gymnasium.
The Lady Bucs and Sale Creek both advanced with straight-set wins over Lookout Valley and CSAS respectively, but the championship match took a little bit longer and was a whole lot more competitive.
Boyd-Buchanan got the early advantage with a 25-20 win in the first set before the Lady Panthers evened the score with a 25-17 verdict in the second set.
Then in what turned out to be the turning point in the match, the Lady Bucs overcame a four-point deficit late in the third set before prevailing 26-24. Then they clinched the championship with a 25-15 victory in the fourth.
"I'm glad it's over," said a relieved Boyd-Buchanan coach Ashley Rose after her team had improved to 29-13 with Monday's two wins.
"I'm really elated as we all knew just how important this win would be," she continued, totally aware that the loser would be traveling to face undefeated Goodpasture, perhaps the best team in the state in any classification with a 42-0 record.
"We hung in there, but it wasn't easy. We had a lot of long volleys, but we showed a lot of heart. I told my girls that they had to want to win after we lost that second set and they responded in a positive way.
"I thought we might be in trouble after losing that second set, but I was just hoping that it was our bad game of the night. We had a nice comeback in the third set, which turned out to be huge, but playing at home on Thursday will be an advantage for us," Rose added.
It was a gut-wrenching defeat for the Lady Panthers, who had breezed to a District 5 title last week at South Pittsburg. They appeared to be back on track with that win in the second set, but the wind was taken from their sails with Boyd-Buchanan's rally in the third and the Lady Panthers never recovered.
"We played hard, but now we have to get ready for the next one," said Sale Creek coach Debbie Hill after her girls had fallen to 33-16 with the loss.
"My girls took it pretty hard, but they got beat by a pretty good team tonight. We gave them a battle, but volleyball is such an emotional sport. I think we may have gotten a little carried away when we got the lead in the third set, but the frustration of not being able to put them away at that point may have been the turning point of the entire match.
"It takes a whole lot to come back from a 2-1 deficit. We tried to regroup after that third set, but Boyd-Buchanan just seemed to gain more and more confidence with every mistake we made. Their defense was sound, but we really have a tough challenge in front of us now. We'll see what happens on Thursday," Hill concluded.
In that critical third set, there were 11 ties and six lead changes. Sale Creek scored four straight points to break from a 16-16 draw and appeared to be headed in the right direction. The Lady Panthers still had the advantage at 22-18 when the Lady Bucs started their comeback.
A kill from Jordan Duncan gave Sale Creek a 23-20 edge before the Lady Bucs scored six of the final seven points for the victory, which included four kills from tournament MVP Asia Kirkman during that stretch.
Kirkman was indeed the difference as she controlled action up front with 23 kills, despite the fact that she was one of the shortest players on the court. She also had seven digs and an assist.
Katie Delay and Kristen Reynolds were also picked for the all-tournament team with Delay getting 69 digs in the win over Sale Creek after a whopping 44 digs in the match against Lookout Valley. Reynolds had 25 assists and 16 digs to go along with seven kills and an ace.
Megan Storey and Brooke Welch earned all-tournament honors for the Lady Panthers. Storey had 21 digs, 16 assists, seven kills, an ace and a block in the finals while Welch had 29 digs in both matches.
Duncan finished with 11 kills against the Lady Bucs while Mikayla Crowder was next with 10.
Boyd-Buchanan had advanced to the finals with a 3-0 win over CSAS by scores of 25-20, 25-19 and 25-17 while Sale Creek had advanced with a 25-16, 25-14 and 25-15 victory over Lookout Valley.
Lookout Valley's Savannah Walker and Brooke Mitchell of CSAS were the other two all-tournament honorees.
BOYD-BUCHANAN STATS (two matches):
Madison Balthrop -- 4 digs, 1 ace;
Lauren Van Eaton -- 4 digs, 15 kills, 2 aces;
Sarah Emrey -- 10 digs, 7 kills, 1 assist, 1 block, 2 aces;
Katie Delay -- 113 digs, 4 aces;
Asia Kirkman -- 37 kills, 7 digs, 1 assist;
Kristen Reynolds -- 20 digs, 12 kills, 45 assists, 7 aces;
Allie Ray -- 5 kills, 3 assists;
Sydney Spencer -- 3 digs, 16 kills, 2 assists, 1 ace;
Halie Williamson -- 7 digs, 31 assists, 2 aces;
Sarah Keller -- 5 kills, 21 digs, 1 ace.
SALE CREEK STATS (two matches):
Taylor Day -- 6 digs;
Lauren Smith -- 10 kills, 7 digs, 1 ace;
Ariana Smmith -- 3 kills, 1 assist, 1 block;
Bailey Pugh -- 12 digs, 31 assists;
Hayli Radtke -- 1 block, 1 ace;
Miranda Barnette -- 7 kills;
Jordan Duncan -- 19 kills, 4 blocks;
McKenna Morgan -- 1 dig, 1 ace;
Regan Garrett -- 19 digs, 2 aces;
Mikayla Crowder -- 15 kills, 1 dig, 2 blocks;
Megan Storey -- 22 kills, 34 digs, 32 assists, 3 aces, 1 block;
Brooke Welch -- 58 digs.
Mya Adams -- 4 kills;
Ashley Boles -- 12 assists, 2 kills, 19 digs;
Natalie Cooper -- 1 ace, 2 kills, 17 digs;
Britany Patman -- 2 aces, 8 assists, 12 digs, 2 blocks;
Neethu Kurien -- 2 aces, 10 digs;
Rachel Bossong -- 1 kill, 1 block;
Briana Taylor -- 2 aces, 36 digs;
Arica Montgomery -- 7 kills, 2 digs, 1 block;
Brooke Mitchell -- 8 kills, 3 digs, 3 blocks.
LOOKOUT VALLEY STATS:
Savannah Walker -- 13 digs, 5 kills;
Hannah Hallowell -- 1 kill;
Brianna Evers -- 3 digs;
Katelyn Mitchell -- 7 digs;
Briana Workman -- 16 digs, 2 kills;
Topaz Aranda -- 2 digs;
Annie Marr -- 7 assists, 6 kills, 7 digs;
Elexis Foster -- 10 digs, 3 kills.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)