River Ridge won the first game and Lake Gibson had tied the second at 26. One play could have turned the tide of the whole match.
Fortunately for the Royal Knights, it was Tricia Thomas who made that play _ twice.
Thomas broke the tie, flinging the ball with both hands away from two blockers at the net in a cross-court dump, surprising the Braves. They were even more surprised when she did it again, executing the exact same play, from the exact same spot at the net, to win the second game.
River Ridge never relinquished control, sweeping Lake Gibson 25-20, 28-26, 25-13 to win Tuesday night's Class 5A region quarterfinal playoff at the James Valentine Athletic Complex.
"I love doing that," Thomas said of her inventive play. "It's so much fun."
It was smart, too, Knights coach Heidi Castelamare said.
"She played real smart at the net," Castelamare said. "You've got two blockers there at the net, they're defending her, you get a cross-court dump and it was wide open.
"It gave us so much momentum. I mean, look at our third game, 25-13. Volleyball is such a game of momentum and we're such an emotional team. When we're down we're down, and when we're up we're up."
There was no threat of a letdown after that, but the first two wins were hardly easy. After River Ridge (17-5) took a 19-7 lead on Tarah Bigger's kill, Lake Gibson (20-9) stormed back with 11 unanswered points. But the Knights held on, ending the game on a Thomas kill, a Braves' error and a Krystal Dennis kill.
The second game was tied seven times, and Lake Gibson took its first leads of the match. But three straight kills from Dennis set the stage for Thomas' heroics. River Ridge kept its foe at arm's length throughout the third game.
Thomas had a team-high 14 kills and three blocks and Dennis led the team with six blocks and had 11 kills.
River Ridge advanced to Saturday's Region 2 semifinals and a meeting with Gaither (15-1), which beat Brandon (15-11) in five Tuesday. Mitchell hosts Saturday's semifinal and final rounds.
MITCHELL WINS: Playing a tough schedule during the regular season paid off for Mitchell. The Mustangs defeated No. 8 Lakeland's highly regarded Dreadnaughts 25-23, 25-20, 28-26 in the Class 5A, Region 3 quarterfinal at Lakeland.
"They played great. That's the best I've seen Mitchell play," Lakeland coach Sean McMurrow said.
Mitchell (18-9) hosts the region semifinals and finals Saturday.
Lakeland (22-3) made surges in all three games that gave the Dreadnaughts their chances.
Dixon had 13 kills for Mitchell and Zappacosta had 25 assists. For Lakeland, Kilburn had 10 kills, Rudolph six.
_ THE LEDGER
CLERMONT _ Wesley Chapel surprised host Clermont East Ridge by winning the first two games Tuesday night, thwarting a game point in the second.
The Wildcats lost the next two games, and in the final game they fought off two match points, including one in which the referee gave the celebrating Knights the clinching point, only to reverse his call and order a replay.
In the end, all that did was make it harder for nine Wildcats seniors when their high school careers ended with a 23-25, 24-26, 25-19, 25-17, 15-12 loss to East Ridge.
"These are my babies," said a tearful coach Julie Marks, whose team made the playoffs for the fourth year in a row but was unable to pull off the opening-round upset. "We knew it was going to end, but I was just hoping it would be a little later. This is hard."
East Ridge (27-2) got a scare from the Wildcats, dropping the opening two matches and trailing 8-6 in the final game. But two Wildcats errors, two Knights kills and an ace made for a 5-0 run and an 11-8 lead.
It took three match points _ four if you count the Knights kill that was overturned by officials _ but Wesley Chapel lost to another upstart program that earned its first playoff win in its second year of existence.
"We haven't played a team all year that keeps the ball in play the way they did," Knights coach Mary McCann said. "It took us a while to realize we had to play the same way, keeping the ball in play and letting them make the mistakes."
Lauren Valdez led the Wildcats with 12 kills, including all three in the final game. Brenna Lane had 10.
COBRAS DEFEAT CENTRAL: In seven district championships and two state semifinal appearances, Hudson never hosted a regional semifinal or final.
That changes Saturday thanks to a 25-19, 25-13, 21-25, 25-14 home win over Central. The Cobras will host a semifinal against Auburndale, then possibly the title match.
"Certainly we're making history," Hudson coach Linda McQuade said. "This is the first time we've had this opportunity."
Following a third-game lull, McQuade said the Cobras "took charge and played their game" against Central.
"Volleyball's a game of momentum," she said. "Our offense was running in and out. They're usually a little more consistent."
Jessica Borrello led Hudson (23-4) with 14 kills and 10 digs. Allyson Ray had seven blocks, Courtney Law 26 passes and Rebecca Arico two aces.
_ GREG AUMAN, STEVE LEE
LECANTO _ After a sluggish beginning, Seven Rivers Christian coach Jamie Richard had some harsh words for the Warriors during a first-game timeout.
He said they were being lazy, and he wanted them to move their feet.
"He just told us what we already knew," junior Rachel Ebert said.
The Warriors took control from there, easily defeating Orange Park Christian 25-16, 25-9, 25-8 on Tuesday night in a Class A region quarterfinal. Seven Rivers trailed only three times, the last at 2-3 in the opening game.
"It took us awhile to get going," senior Amy Cortese said. "Anything can happen in the state tournament, so we had to play hard."
The Warriors (20-5) have won six of their past seven matches.
Orange Park Christian (9-10) simply couldn't match Seven River Christian's offensive firepower. The Lions defense was strong initially, but the Warriors began to pound away with a fierce attack midway through the first game and never relented.
Ebert led Seven Rivers with 12 kills. Alice Zeiss had eight. Rachael Capra and Danielle Toms also made their share of plays.
"We really came back strong," Richard said. "In the third game, we got into it."
_ KEITH NIEBUHR