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DURANT — Away from home, sluggish from the start and scrambling to defend a 6-foot-2 nightmare, Wharton seemed headed for an unexpected early exit from the postseason.
Durant had dominated the Wildcats the first two games and nothing in their play or demeanor suggested a comeback was on the horizon.
But when things seemed most bleak for the Wildcats, they put together the sort of performance that earned them a reputation as Hillsborough’s best public-school team this fall.
Wharton stormed to a 7-1 lead in the third set en route to a five-game win over Durant in the semifinals of the Class 8A-7 tournament Wednesday. Senior outside hitter Caci Andreychuk led the Wildcats with 35 kills in the 18-25, 12-25, 25-19, 25-21, 15-9 victory.
“It was a character-builder,” Andreychuk said. “Basically, it was a slap in the face.”
In the first semifinal, Plant also rallied from an early deficit to pull out a 25-21, 23-25, 27-25, 19-25, 15-8 victory over Bloomingdale.
The Panthers, who have won their district for more than a decade, will meet Wharton in the final Thursday. It will be a rematch of their hotly contested match Sept. 10, a four-set Wharton win that stirred up tension between fan bases and announced the emergence of the Wildcats as a local power.
“Of course I want Wharton,” Plant senior and kills leader Ashley Cozart admitted just before Wharton’s semifinal.
It looked like Durant was going to foil those plans.
Durant’s Lexi Thompson caused all sorts of trouble for Wharton (25-1), which never held a lead in the first two games.
Thompson, a 6-2 junior who finished with 35 kills, closed the second game with consecutive aces to punctuate her early mastery of the Wildcats. Durant’s home crowd whooped at the unexpected triumph and serenaded Wharton with chants of “overrated!”
For the Wildcats, who had lost two games in a match only twice (once in its sole loss), it was the kind of gut-check that had eluded them throughout their dominant run this fall.
“This is what it’s all about,” Wharton coach Eric Barber said. “I just told them to believe in what we do.”
Barber made some defensive adjustments to account for Thompson and Andreychuk made up for some earlier mistakes with a strong finish.
The Wildcats controlled the third game and fought back from a five-point deficit in the fourth, getting key contributions from Ashton Stocker (49 assists and five blocks) and Avery Day (five blocks).
In a fitting end, Stocker blocked Thompson at the net for the clinching point in the fifth.
The top-seeded Wildcats will again occupy the rarefied air of favorite in Thursday’s final, this time against 10-time state champion Plant (14-10).
“We’re looking forward to it,” Andreychuk said.
“Plant needed to be humbled this year,” said Cozart, who led Plant with 13 kills in its win, “And it’s weird, but I like being the underdog.”