HUDSON — So loose, and likely feeling so assured of a third straight trip to the state semifinals, was Ponte Vedra that after Tuesday's third set the Sharks started playing that water bottle flipping game on their bench.
One set later, Fivay had the Sharks' attention fully back to the match at hand. Behind a tremendous home crowd and defensive effort, the Falcons forced the defending state runnerup to the limit before falling 25-19, 22-25, 25-9, 23-25, 15-9.
"We've come too far and worked too hard to go out like that," said Fivay senior leader Kirbea Harrell of the third-set showing. It saw the Falcons suffer a major letdown, somewhat understandable after the intense effort they'd put into winning the second set against a supremely talented — and tall — group of Sharks.
Though Ponte Vedra doesn't list its players' heights, head coach Robin Mignerey allowed they have a lot who "push 5-11" and what makes the Sharks so dangerous is not one stands out as the go-to. Junior Paige Johnson led the visitors with 14 kills, and Gabby Keller added eight, putting both over the 200 mark for the season.
Jordan Gregg went for seven kills, but did her most impressive damage on defense with seven blocks.
Yet Fivay (24-4) persevered, in the first region final appearance for this group; Fivay reached this stage in 2012 and 2013, losing in straight sets both times.
It looked like the same fate might befall the Falcons on Tuesday, as Ponte Vedra spread the wealth led by Gregg's four kills in the first set. Her block followed by a kill opened a 20-16 lead after it had been tied at 13.
But starting the second … wow. Fivay's intensity level was through the roof as it charged ahead 5-2.
"We saw their size, and thought 'Okay, we have to try and match it with blocking and defense.' Especially defense," Harrell said.
Harrell came up with 18 digs, libero Maddy Triglia led with 22 and Lindsey Christianson added 17.
Offense did its part also. Following a set where Harrell was the only Falcon with multiple kills, Fivay got two each from Christianson and Torrie Berryhill along with five from Harrell, who ended with 12. Ponte Vedra actually led 18-17 before Maddie Kachurak finished a dramatic point off with a kill and Christianson served an ace. Harrell took control of the set with back-to-back points for 21-19, and after a Gregg block cut it to 23-22 Harrell came through again.
Then came the dropoff and the need for another answer from Fivay.
"I told them to play our game. If we fight them hard then win or lose, we'd have something to be proud of. We did that," said Fivay coach Nikki Pollock.
The fourth set was an absolute thriller. Fivay managed to overcome five blocks, three from Gregg. Three straight putbacks had Ponte Vedra up 11-6, and it was 17-14 before Fivay rallied to take a 20-19 lead after two Berryhill kills and a 40-second point.
Yet the Sharks went back up 22-20. Kachurak and Berryhill combined for a block to tie it, then Kachurak put the Falcons ahead 23-22 before a couple of Sharks errors evened the match.
Ponte Vedra, no water bottle flipping this time, played its best set in the fifth committing just one error. Lily Kinder, another of Mignerey's "where'd she come from" line of tall hitters, finished off the match just as she had topped off the Sharks' other two set victories. Kinder only had one kill otherwise, and it was the one that had Ponte Vedra up 22-20 in the fourth.
Erika Hedrickson and Logan Mignerey both had a handful of kills and, yes, both are taller than anyone on Fivay's team.
"We don't have that one hitter with dazzling numbers, but we've got a great group. I'm excited about our chances," Mignerey said.
She was also excited that Fivay chose to switch sides before the fifth set, as the team that was on the side of the "Falcon Fanatics" lost each time.
"Stupid and superstitious, I know, but I was thinking 'please let's switch sides'," she said, hinting that the "100 screaming fans" might have affected her players in the two sets the Sharks lost.
Christianson finished with seven kills, three coming in the fourth set, while co-setters Berryhill and Kachurak combined for nine and Lenora Nauman added three. Berryhill also contributed 10 digs.