KISSIMMEE — For the second straight season, Clearwater Central Catholic left Silver Spurs Arena with more questions than answers.
What if a few of the Marauders' blocks had landed on the other side of the net? What if a few spikes had landed inside the line? What if just a couple kill attempts cleared the net?
Those little things haunted them on another bus ride back to Clearwater after a 25-20, 21-25, 24-26, 25-15, 15-12 loss to Orlando First Academy in the Class 3A state semifinal Tuesday afternoon. First Academy (20-9) faces Miami Westminster in today's final. The Royals have won five straight state titles.
Last season CCC lost in five games to Gainesville St. Francis in the semifinals.
"Some days you don't have your best days," Marauders coach Stephen Shepherd said. "You have to bring your A game in matches like this. There were times where we lost our focus, and that cost us big-time."
After surrendering the final five points of the first game, CCC (26-6) looked to be in trouble again in the second. Ahead 15-11, the Marauders gave up eight straight points and trailed 19-15.
But CCC had an eight-point run thanks to two blocks and a kill by Katie Moore. The Marauders led 23-20 and traded points with First Academy to end the game.
CCC jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the third and looked comfortable most of the way. But the Royals chipped away and got some help from CCC errors to tie at 24. Kills by Sara Brown and Rachel Odell helped CCC eke out the win.
The fourth game proved pivotal. First Academy frustrated CCC throughout and scored 10 of the last 13 points.
"When we had the momentum we were playing to our ability and we were blowing them out of the water," Moore said. "When we lost the fourth game we lost the momentum going into the fifth game and that hurt us a lot. We lost it at the wrong time."
First Academy won the first three points of the fifth game and never trailed. The lead was cut to 12-10 on a Brown kill, but two kills by Brittany Smith helped end the match.
Smith led all players with 21 kills. Setter Brooke Green had 42 assists for the Royals. Moore had 16 kills and six blocks for CCC, and Shea Hamilton had 15 kills and 34 digs.
"In the three games we lost we had double-digit swinging errors," Shepherd said. "For the match we had 40. You're not going to beat quality teams with 40 swinging errors. We clean that up and we're advancing."
Though it was a narrow win, First Academy felt equipped to beat the Marauders.
"We scouted their team very well," Royals coach Haley Malone said. "We knew how they ran their offense. We knew everything about that team. All we had to do was execute, get the ball to our go-to hitters and avoid Katie (Moore) at all costs."
The Marauders said they beat themselves.
"They are a very good team, but at the same time we didn't play our best," Hamilton said. "Then they got so far up in the fifth game that we just lost our energy. Everybody just kind of lost hope."
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.