Lafayette might have wobbled on its way to the finish line in the 43rd District volleyball tournament Tuesday night, but it got there just ahead of Tates Creek in a tense three-set showdown between top-20 teams.
Generals Coach Chris Langston said his players were "wobbly at times but, when they had to do it, they got the job done."
No. 16 Lafayette outlasted No. 17 Tates Creek 25-21, 31-33, 25-20 to earn a spot in the district finals for the first time in five years.
The host Generals face No. 6 Henry Clay in Wednesday's title match at 6:30 p.m. Both teams will advance to next week's 11th Region tournament at Henry Clay.
Never miss a local story.
The defending district and region champion Blue Devils beat Paul Laurence Dunbar in straight sets — 25-20, 25-13 — in Tuesday's opener.
All of the drama was in the nightcap, with Lafayette and Tates Creek taking turns on an emotional roller coaster.
In the first set, the Generals didn't take the lead for good until they edged ahead 20-19 and finished strong.
The second set was a marathon. Lafayette seemed on its way to a ho-hum victory when it led 21-13. But Shannon Alford's Commodores, behind freshman star Kendall Beerman and junior setter Danielle Merryman, battled back to tie it 24-24.
Both teams survived match points as the set kept going, but Tates Creek eventually pulled out a 33-31 win.
If Lafayette's Langston was worried about how his players would react after blowing a big lead, he wasn't worried for long.
"I looked at them, and they were very upset at themselves," he said. "I knew that meant good things for us."
Senior star Emily Kincaid had the same feeling.
"Our team has a lot of heart," she said. "Of course, it hurt to lose (that set), but it made us work that much harder in the third (set)."
Lafayette pulled together down the stretch, getting key contributions from Kincaid, Sarah Jenkins, Annie King, Courtney Wright and Chandler Kinley.
Kinley, a sophomore defensive specialist, was all over the court making digs all night.
"She makes our team go the way she flies around and brings that intensity," Langston said.
Henry Clay, which has qualified for the region 16 times in Dale Grupe's 18 years as coach, lacked intensity when it got off to a slow start against Dunbar.
The underdog Bulldogs led most of the first set, thanks to strong play by Joia Pollard, Alyssa Gatewood, Gabbi Thatcher and Emma Landers.
But Henry Clay, down 20-19, scored the last six points to pull out the victory. Emily Stromberg and Emily McClendon had the big kills and blocks in the closing rush.
The Blue Devils carried that momentum into the second set, jumping to a 9-1 lead on their way to securing a spot in the district finals.
Stromberg said it took Henry Clay a while to get in sync. Senior setter Jordan Strickland had missed the regular-season finale, "and we were still getting used to having her back.
"We came out much stronger in the second (set) and played more of our game. We knew we needed to push till the end."
Grupe said he wasn't surprised by the tough test from Jenni Morgan's Bulldogs:
"We knew coming into the match this is the toughest district in the state. Even though Dunbar has been struggling, they've got good players, and they showed more heart than us early tonight.
"But we never lost confidence that we were the stronger team, and I was proud of the way we kept fighting."