FRANKFORT — For the third year in a row, and for the fourth time since 2003, Henry Clay and Paul Laurence Dunbar will clash for the 11th Region volleyball title Thursday night at Franklin County.
But the expected showdown almost didn't happen.
Lexington Catholic came within a point of knocking off No. 6 Henry Clay in Wednesday night's semifinals.
After the No. 15 Knights won a 33-31 first-game thriller, they led 24-22 in the second game.
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Did defeat cross the minds of Henry Clay?
"Definitely," said Devils junior Kate Stromberg. "But we fought through it and pulled it out."
Henry Clay scored the last four points to win 26-24, then dominated the decisive third game 25-14.
"It came down to heart," Stromberg said.
No. 9 Dunbar had no trouble beating Scott County 25-12, 25-11 in the other semifinal at Franklin County.
The Bulldogs, who beat Henry Clay in the region finals last year and in the district finals last week, are looking forward to another match with their archrivals.
"We're always excited about playing Henry Clay," Dunbar senior Brianna Hill said. "We get a thrill out of it."
Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan said getting to the region finals is "what it's all about.
"This is what the girls look forward to. This is why they put in all the hard work."
Does either team have a psychological edge?
"Henry Clay has the mentality that we can't beat them three times in a row," Hill said. "But we have the mentality that we know their strengths and weaknesses, and we're confident in our abilities to do what we need to do to get to the state."
Dunbar got strong play from Hill, Madison Hatcher, Lauren Travis, Rachel Lowry and Kelly Cole in sweeping Scott County.
Henry Clay, meanwhile, had to fight valiantly to reach the region finals for the eighth time in nine years.
Lexington Catholic, led by Alli Deaton, Tyler Deaton, Kathryn Sandefer and Julie Babbage, almost pulled the upset.
"We did everything we wanted to do in the first two games," Coach Mark McCloskey said. "The girls executed really, really well. We served, passed and played defense.
"But when you get up 24-22, you've gotta make that play. But give Henry Clay credit. They did what it took to win."
After the Devils barely survived the second game, they controlled the third with sharp, aggressive play. Mikayla Reese, Shelly Besten and Emily Stromberg got more free swings at the net and made them pay off.
"We finally found our energy," Coach Dale Grupe said. "We started playing for the love of the game instead of worrying about making mistakes."
Lexington Catholic, on the other hand, couldn't recapture the momentum it had earlier in the night.
"I'm sure they had a letdown," Grupe said. "They had victory in their hands, and it's tough to come back from that."
Henry Clay is now looking for its fourth region title this decade.
At Franklin Co.
Henry Clay def. Lex. Catholic 31-33, 26-24, 25-14
Records—Henry Clay 35-4; Lex. Catholic 26-8
Paul Dunbar def. Scott Co. 25-12, 25-11
Records—Paul Dunbar 33-9; Scott Co. 14-16