LAKELAND — During its previous two postseason matches, Tampa Prep had its back against the wall, only to emerge in consecutive five-set victories.
In a rematch of last year’s Class 2A state championship, the Terrapins once again faced adversity in the form of a two-game deficit at the Lakeland Center, but they couldn’t overcome two-time state champion First Academy, falling in the state semifinals Wednesday 17-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-18.
“When all odds have been against these girls, they have stepped up,” Tampa Prep coach Mike Flynn said. “Tonight, it’s not a matter of them not stepping up. It’s not a matter of them not giving their all tonight. Did we play a better team tonight? We did.”
Flynn couldn’t say enough about the toughness of Tampa Prep (13-16) after the match, simply because of how his squad outplayed Indian Rocks Christian in region play and held off Evangelical Christian in Fort Myers in the region finals.
“Being in those tight battles the last two times proves the toughness of these girls,” Flynn said. “Give them some helmets and shoulder pads. We don’t need football at Tampa Prep when we’ve got tough girls like these playing in the fall, that’s for sure.”
Senior outside hitter Gabby Fernandez led the Terrapins with 15 kills and 15 digs. She racked up four each in the first game, which Tampa Prep started with an 11-5 run and won 25-17.
But the Royals (27-3) stormed back to end Tampa Prep’s season for the second year in a row thanks to their superior defensive pursuit and ball control. First Academy finished with 68 digs, and setter Abby Mixner totaled 50 assists on the Royals’ 62 kills.
“I felt like the entire time they played pretty much the same game. I think it was definitely on our side,” Fernandez said. “Our ball control wasn’t as good as it needed to be or as good as it was in Game 1, and that was the key to winning.”
Despite leaving Lakeland without a state title for the third straight year, senior Ericka McGriff said the Terrapins can hold their heads high.
“Not many teams come to the state final four three times in a row,” she said, “and I feel accomplished for doing that.”