Ocala Vanguard presented challenges that Jensen Beach volleyball head coach Mike Sawtelle knew would make Saturday’s 5A state semifinal a tough one.
On paper, the Falcons as the No. 1 seed in the postseason bracket facing the lowest ranked state semifinalist could have created a false sense of confidence for a team wanting to make history.
Taking the best punch Vanguard could throw at them, Jensen Beach preserved through three hard-fought sets and won them all with set scores of 25-22, 25-20 and 26-24 to earn the chance to add a fifth state title banner to their gymnasium.
“I was worried about Vanguard, you can quote me on that,” Sawtelle said. “I was concerned about the talent on that team, they had several players that were elite players. For us to win the game, our good players had to be better than their good players. That was a challenge match, they came on strong, challenged us to rise up, we rose up and challenged them to rise up.”
The Knights (16-12) began the season with losses in six of their first eight matches against quality competition and set Vanguard up for a stretch run of six wins in a row and coming into a hostile environment, they took the fight to the Falcons from the start.
Although the Falcons led for the majority of the opening set, Vanguard closed to 21-20 on a kill from senior Ruby Owen.
Two kills from sophomore Catherine Hamilton helped Jensen Beach inch closer to the set win and the Falcons got it on a Vanguard service error.
The Knights flew out of the gate in the second set, taking an 11-8 lead thanks to an ace from senior Adyla Kerley.
Jensen Beach would chip away thanks to its defense and grab hold of the momentum to go in front 18-15, but Vanguard would again late in the set have a shot trailing 18-17.
Falcon senior Sabine Rudolph served up three consecutive aces to give Jensen Beach a cushion and a Hamilton gave the Falcons a two-set lead with a clinching kill.
Vanguard again got off to a good start in the third set and took a 15-11 lead before Jensen Beach turned the tide back.
Consecutive blocks by Falcon senior Haley Handlen helped Jensen Beach gain a 22-18 edge but the Knights didn’t give in.
Vanguard senior Emma Ehmann came up with a clutch kill that tied the set 24-24 but when Jensen Beach called upon its leader of the pack, senior Lindsay Walch delivered.
The Furman commit stamped the Falcons’ trip to the 5A final with back-to-back kills, with her 17th of the match one she wanted as bad as any she’s had in her life.
“I think that’s the best feeling to have, I wanted it, and I think everybody could see that,” Walch said. “It’s just the best feeling to have and I really wanted it.”
In all facets Saturday, Jensen Beach got production from about everyone in its rotation.
Senior libero Sophia Gannascoli had eight digs, Hamilton had seven kills and four aces, Handlen had six kills, senior Kiosha Smith had six blocks and junior setter Raegan Richardson collected 31 assists and added six kills.
In the eyes of senior super-utility standout Lauren Duke, the effort she felt in particular with the longer rallies Saturday tilted in the Falcons’ favor because of the collective effort they displayed at key points in each set.
“I think we definitely out-hustled them the whole match,” Duke said. “I would say we beat them in the long rallies and that’s a really big thing to get.”
The excitement for Jensen Beach and its large senior class to try and make amends for a state championship match loss two years ago to Ponte Vedra was met by disappointment for Vanguard with another recent close call in the state tournament.
Since winning the 7A state title in 2018, Knights lost to eventual state champion Mosley in the state semifinals last year in four sets. In 2020, Vanguard like Jensen Beach was also eliminated by Ponte Vedra but again in a state semifinal one year after falling to the Sharks in the 5A state title match.
Knights head coach Luis Perez couldn’t fault the effort his girls gave after a long road trip and pushing Jensen Beach to play their best.
“Really proud of them, it hurts me to look at the girls this way after this and it hurts that we finished the run in the semifinals,” Perez said. “I have a great group of seniors and a great group of girls. They worked hard throughout the season, they were working as a team together. Unfortunately, we came up short.”
Ehmann had 12 kills and Owen added seven kills, Kerley added 11 digs and four aces and senior Sophia Reed totaled 19 assists for Vanguard.
Jensen Beach now will set its sights on preparing for Barron Collier, who dispatched Wesley Chapel in three sets and enters Saturday’s 5A state final winners of nine in a row.
With a full week to recover and strategize how his girls will attack the moment on the court at Polk State College at 1 p.m. next week, Sawtelle believes the team chemistry of his team that has helped them dig out of holes throughout the year will be key to finding a way to win one more match.
“The M.O. of this team because they are such a tight group, when the games get tough, they come together,” Sawtelle said. “We’ve been down many, many times this year. They have the ability to correct their mistakes and move on within the game. When we see a weakness, we will attack it. It’s a close unit and when the going’s tough, they come together and that’s what has helped us win these games.”
Bryan Cooney is a high school sports reporter at TCPalm, part of the USA TODAY Network. You can reach him at [email protected] and also on Twitter at @Bryspann_Cooney.