LAKELAND — Every volleyball season at Berkeley Prep begins with legitimate ambitions of a state championship.
The Buccaneers have won 12 state titles — including a run of six straight from 1988 to 1993 — but they entered Saturday's Class 3A championship match without a title since 2003.
And this year's team seemed to have everything on its side, including a pair of regular-season wins over its opponent — Lake Highland Prep. But in the end, there was no celebration, only a line of silent players peering through the net at a scene that has become all too common.
The Highlanders ended Berkeley Prep's season in the state tournament for the fourth straight year, handing the Bucs a four-game defeat at the Lakeland Center, 25-19, 25-23, 19-25, 25-11. The win etched the most recent chapter of Lake Highland's dynasty — a fifth straight state title.
"It's mixed emotions," said setter Christina Theofilos, the Bucs' lone senior starter. "Mad, sad, because I really thought this was our year."
The Berkeley Prep team that took the floor Saturday wasn't the same one that overcame losing four starters in its path to the title game, surpassing the expectations of the coach and players.
"Going into the season, I didn't have any idea who was going to play what position, how we were going to play, whether we were going to be a remotely good team at all," junior middle hitter Lindsay Young said.
The inexperience of the Bucs (27-3) was on display. Lake Highland Prep learned from its two regular-season losses, playing sound defense, especially on the block, attacking the young hitters.
"We're such a young team," Berkeley coach Randy Dagostino said. "We fought like crazy, but it always felt like we were playing defense at the end of the game. We needed to keep them on defense as much as we could."
The Highlanders (25-7) kept the Bucs off-balance on defense, countering the block by mixing up hard hitting from the outside and middle with dump-offs from their setter, never allowing Berkeley to get in synch offensively.
"We knew what their strengths were," Lake Highland Prep coach Charmaine Cox said.
Berkeley dropped the first two games of the match for just the second time this season — the only other time was in a loss to Louisville Mercy, the top-ranked team in the country. The Bucs had leads in both games, including 14-7 and 20-16 in the second.
The Bucs scored 15 of the final 17 points in Game 3 to cut the Highlanders' lead but fell behind 12-6 in the fourth game and could never recover.
Freshman Jordan Burgess had a team-high 20 kills for the Bucs, while Young and freshman Mackenzie Dagostino had 10 kills apiece. Theofilos led the team with 29 assists and 18 digs.