TAMPA — Steinbrenner setter Brooke Royals has full faith in her teammates, but everyone knows where the ball is going on the points that matter.
Rachel Mathison came up clutch every time as Steinbrenner beat Lake Nona 25-14, 25-23, 25-20 in Saturday’s Class 7A region final. The Warriors (24-3) are headed to the state semis for the first time.
“I know when it’s crunch time, Rachel’s going to put it away every time. I love her to death,” said Royals, who had 20 assists.
Mathison finished with 13 kills, her final blast ending the match and setting off a delirious celebration.
Mathison also concluded the second set, a tricky one that saw the Lions threaten to even the score. Lake Nona (23-5) fell behind 18-12 on a Mathison ace but for the first time Steinbrenner got shaky and the Lions took a 22-21 lead.
That’s when Lake Nona helped with a bad serve, and Royals fed Mathison who made it 23-22. The teams exchanged errors before a classic up-the-line putaway from Mathison.
Lake Nona had never made the playoffs before this year but features talented lefty sophomore Mikalya Shields and junior Jamesa Allen.
“Major props to No. 12 (Shields),” said Steinbrenner libero Madi Powell. “She’ll definitely go far. We had to earn our points.”
It didn’t start out that way as Steinbrenner only required five kills to take the first set. By contrast, the Warriors hit the five-kill mark (all by different players) eight points into the second.
Steinbrenner’s net players took over in the third as Ashley Akers, Lauren Heldt and Taylor Wojciechowski either scored points or altered the Lions’ attack, and Steinbrenner went up 12-7. Lake Nona then got consecutive aces from Allen while scoring five straight to tie.
Warriors coach Laura Stegenga called timeout and Royals went right to Mathison for her first kill of the set. Lake Nona’s last run came with back-to-back blocks by Allen; she even started talking a little trash on the second which tied the score at 19. Again the Lions helped with wayward serves on their next two, the second starting a 5-0 Steinbrenner match-ending run.
“I was fired up,” said Mathison, who had a block and two kills in the run. “I yelled at (Royals) to give me the ball. This is my senior year and I knew this wasn’t going to be my last game.”
Heldt was the other big offensive factor in the final set with three of her five kills, good for second on the team alongside Avery Bradshaw.
Steinbrenner faces Naples Gulf Coast on Thursday in Kissimmee.
And at this point Mathison and the Warriors don’t feel any need to stop short of the ultimate goal. “We’re ready to win the whole thing,” she said.
5A: Robinson rallies for state berth
NAPLES — Robinson earned a berth in the state semifinals the hardest way possible Saturday.
The Knights rebounded from an early 0-2 hole at Lely to shock the Trojans 18-25, 14-25, 25-12, 25-22, 15-12.
The Knights will meet Belleview on Tuesday in Kissimmee.
“I’m still in shock,” Robinson coach Christen Garcia said. “These girls have so much heart in fighting back how they did. We fell down 0-2, and at that point we decided to fight hard and leave here with pride, and at least let Lely know they had to earn a win. But in that third set, the momentum shifted and we knew we had a chance to win.”
Lauren Peterson led the Knights with six kills, 11 digs and two aces. Catia Sleet had 10 kills, 11 digs and three blocks, while Lauren Wheatley contributed 10 kills and two blocks. Libero Alexandra Peterson also had 19 digs.
“We started to believe in ourselves in that fourth game,” Garcia said. “We asked ourselves ‘What does it feel like to get to the state finals?’ The key today was that fact that we spread out our offense and ran the offense well. We had some great blocks and the setter played well.”
In the third set, front-line defense by Wheatley and service by Emily Draper helped the Knights stay alive with a 13-point victory. In the fourth, the same formula of defense and teamwork on offense helped Robinson overcome an early 10-5 Lely lead. In the fifth and deciding set, Wheatley broke a 7-7 tie with three straight service points and the Knights were never threatened after that.
4A: Berkeley Prep finds its groove
TAMPA — Berkeley Prep overcame a slow start to beat LaBelle 25-14, 25-12, 25-14 and advance to the state final four.
The Buccaneers held a 13-12 lead in the first game, with LaBelle’s points coming off nine unforced errors. A 9-0 run, highlighted by Addison Harden’s two kills and block, swung momentum in Berkeley Prep’s favor.
“We started sluggish,” coach John Coup said, noting that he did not have much of a scouting report on LaBelle, which was playing in only its second region final in school history. “We were apprehensive, especially in the beginning. We just said, ‘Calm down and relax. Play your game.’ ”
Coup knows it does not get easier in the next round. Berkeley Prep, a state finalist last season after a three-year state championship run, faces Lake Highland Prep, which the the Bucs (22-7) defeated earlier this season.
“The whole thing at this time of year is to win and survive; win and go on,” Coup said. “Our kids are so seasoned at this time of year.
The Bucs have a shot at a 16th overall state title thanks to a solid effort against the Cowboys. Sidney Brown, who this week plans to sign with Stanford, had a team-leading 16 kills and seven digs.
The Bucs wore down the Cowboys with a balanced attack and plenty of power. Logan Weldon contributed 13 kills and 13 digs, Harden had 10 kills and Maddie Alberdi had 40 assists. Maddie Raquet chipped in with six kills and two aces, and Morgan Reyes added seven digs.
Class 3A: Brooke Green’s eight blocks and 47 assists led host First Academy (19-9) to a 3A region championship, edging Tampa Prep (17-11) 25-22, 24-26, 24-26, 25-12, 15-9.
Class 2A: Host Geneva School clinched its first state tournament berth, knocking off the Tampa Bay HEAT 3-0 (25-13, 25-14, 28-6) in 2A. Brooke Riley collected 16 kills and Jessica McKee 19 digs for Geneva (19-11).
At Silver Spurs Arena, Kissimmee
Class 7A: Steinbrenner vs. Naples Gulf Coast, 11 a.m. Thursday
Class 5A: Robinson vs. Belleview, 5 p.m. Tuesday
Class 4A: Berkeley Prep vs. Lake Highland Prep, 3 p.m. Tuesday
Correspondents Steve Lee and Tom Corwin contributed to this report, which uses information from the Orlando Sentinel.