TAMPA — The end was methodical and merciful and inevitable for Robinson.
Improbably on the cusp of the Class 5A semifinals, the Knights’ hustle and discipline could only get them so far against a much taller, athletic and experienced opponent.
Merritt Island, the defending 5A champion, overwhelmed Robinson en route to a 25-21, 25-16, 25-16 victory Saturday in their region final. The loss put a close to the Knights’ best season since winning the state title in 1978 — six years before first-year head coach Christen Garcia was born.
“We gave it all they had and stayed with it,” said Garcia, who got a little teary after the match. “But (the Mustangs) were just faster, stronger and a lot more dynamic.”
Morgan Van Alstine had a match-high 13 kills and Halle Dotson added nine for the Mustangs, who jumped out to an 8-1 lead and never looked back despite making the 130-mile bus trip to the south Tampa campus in the morning.
“We’re hungry to repeat,” Merritt Island coach Angela Patrick said.
Acknowledging her team’s obvious and substantial physical advantages, Patrick said Robinson (18-10) nonetheless provided a stiff challenge.
“We expected a battle today,” Patrick said. “We really respected them and you can tell they’re well-coached.”
That has been the refrain in recent months as the Knights made their deepest playoff push in four decades under Garcia, who came to Robinson after working as a junior varsity coach at Holy Names last season.
After losing six of their first seven matches, the Knights rebounded to win 17 of their past 21 and second straight District 11 championship. They did it with a well-drilled and scrappy style that reflected their coach, who once set the Georgia State career record for digs.
That kind of play showed up again Saturday, when Robinson entered as a tremendous underdog against a team boasting a front line of the 6-foot-1 Van Alistine and 6-0 Dotson.
“We gave everything we had,” said senior Alexandria Gaertner, who led Robinson with nine kills, four aces and four blocks. “I’m so proud of these girls.”
Trailing 8-1, 15-7 and 18-9 in the first set, the Knights rallied behind Gaertner and junior Kylee Gorngpratum. Gaertner scored five points, including two straight aces, during a 9-2 run that closed the Mustangs’ lead to 20-18. But it wasn’t enough, as Van Alistine stopped the streak with a kill and Dotson finished the first game with another for the 25-21 victory.
The Knights held early but brief leads in the next two games. But the Mustangs (25-5) slowly pulled away as Robinson grew weary and made a number of unforced errors.
When it was all over, Garcia huddled her team to thank them for their effort and even shed a few tears — “they’re used to me being mean,” she joked later.
Jeff Davis, Holy Names coach and Garcia’s stepfather, said the Knights had nothing to cry about. He came to the gym realizing Robinson faced long odds.
“I’m a little surprised that they went this far,” Davis said. “But I’m not surprised (Garcia) came in here and had a lot of success. These girls have fought hard every time I’ve seen them play this year.”