BEREA — Henry Clay and Tates Creek took turns riding an emotional roller-coaster in the 11th Region volleyball finals before the Blue Devils could finally exhale and celebrate their third consecutive title on Thursday night.
"It's sweet," Henry Clay Coach Dale Grupe said after a dramatic five-game victory at Madison Southern. "A three-peat has never been done in this region before, so we're proud to do it.
"I knew it'd be hard, but I didn't know it'd be this hard."
Henry Clay, No. 6 in the state, won the first two games 25-15, 25-22, and was four points away from sweeping the No. 14 Commodores.
But Tates Creek didn't let it happen. It mounted an amazing comeback, rallying to win the third game 25-23, then took the fourth 25-19 to tie the match.
Then came the decisive fifth game, a sprint to 15.
The Commodores jumped to leads of 7-2 and 9-6, but this time it was Henry Clay's turn to rally. Having to win by two points, Henry Clay came back from a 16-15 deficit, dodging a Tates Creek match point, to score three in a row and pull out an 18-16 victory.
Devils sophomore Ca'Layci Coffey got the kill that tied it 16-16. Sophomore Olivia Dixon, who didn't play varsity until mid-season, served on the last two points.
"There's nothing more special than to win a match like this," Grupe said. "It's terrible that either team had to lose. Hats off to Tates Creek. They just kept fighting.
"But we did, too. We were teetering on the brink there, but I love the fact that we kept fighting, too."
Devils sophomore setter Lynsey Short admitted to being "nervous the whole time.But we were still confident we could do it.
"We just came in the huddle and said, 'This is it. We've gotta play for each other, especially our three seniors.' We wanted to win it for them."
Those three seniors — Emily McLendon, Natsuki Yamawaki and Elizabeth Combs — took turns making clutch plays.
Yamawaki's serves were a key Henry Clay weapon all night. "She's amazing," Short said. "She's been doing that since middle school."
Combs was effective serving and playing defense, while McLendon did the job at the net.
"You always feel nervous in big games like this that mean so much," McLendon said. "We had to keep telling ourselves to keep confident, keep pushing no matter how nervous or tight it got."
Tates Creek, which was trying to win the region for the first time since 2005, didn't flinch after dropping the first two games. It stormed back, led by seniors Danielle Merryman, Sydney Meaux and Lisa Henning, and, of course, sophomore standout Kendall Beerman, who had the last two points in the momentum-swinging third game.
How did the Commodores turn the match around?
Commodores Coach Sara Chaffin said she challenged her players. "I told them, 'Prove to everybody in this gym that we deserve to be here. We came here to win, so play like winners.'
"And they did."
Chaffin said Tates Creek's youth showed on the final few plays when they couldn't convert.
"We have a young team, and with that comes fear and uncertainty in a situation like this, and I think that got the best of us.
"But I'm really proud of my team. We showed we deserved to be here."
Henry Clay advances to face 16th Region champ Russell in the opening round of the state tournament next Friday at Louisville Valley High School.