Paul Laurence Dunbar's volleyball team celebrated its second consecutive 43rd District championship over Tates Creek on Wednesday night, although the high-fiving and trophy presentation came about an hour after the Bulldogs and their fans probably thought they would.
Dunbar, rated sixth in the state, won the first two games 25-16, 25-21, and was within four points of a sweep when it led the No. 7 Commodores 21-19 in the third game at Lexington Catholic.
But then everything changed. Somebody flipped the momentum switch and Tates Creek took control.
The Commodores rallied to take the third game 25-23, then dominated the fourth 25-15 to set up a decisive 15-point fifth game.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Dunbar Coach Jenni Morgan reminded her players in the huddle to focus on why they were there and what they wanted to accomplish together.
The Bulldogs, sparked by Olivia Canales and Leah Edmond, took the fifth 15-8.
"I told the girls, 'It's now or never. You can't wait,'" Morgan said. "I was really proud of the way they responded."
Dunbar senior setter Alyssa Gatewood said after the Bulldogs won the first two games, "we thought we had it won already and we kind of took a nap."
Tates Creek took advantage. Commodores Coach Sara Chaffin wasn't surprised her players rallied from the brink of being swept. "The girls know that's not what we're about. We're a team that fights. We don't just give a game to anybody. The game-changer for us was we started blocking shots. That's what got us the momentum."
Kendall Lockman, Kendall Beerman, Haley Summers and Julia Loveday were among the Commodores playing defense at the net.
"We didn't put on a hitting clinic in games three and four," Morgan said of her Bulldogs. "But credit Tates Creek for blocking our shots."
Beerman, Doris Carter and Taylor Reihing helped keep the Commodores in sync during their comeback.
But Dunbar regained control in the fifth game by playing like it had earlier in the evening. The Bulldogs were sharp in those first two games. Hope Gassett, a senior libero, was all over the court. Rachel Brown, Alyson Hatfield, Alyssa Molden, Jenna Mulert and Mary Martin all came up with big plays.
Canales, one of the top juniors in the state, was battling sickness, but she came through big time in the fifth game.
Edmond was a standout the whole night. The sophomore moved to Lexington last April when her dad, Corey Edmond, took a job as UK's strength and conditioning coach for football.
Leah was a force at the net both hitting and blocking. "This was probably one of my best games," she said.
Chaffin was impressed. "She can jump and she has hang time, and that's hard to defend."
Dunbar needed four games to beat Tates Creek in last year's district finals. The teams split two matches this regular season. So Morgan was braced for a battle Wednesday. "They're a great team. They took it to us and we wouldn't have expected anything different."
Both advance to the 11th Region tournament at Western Hills in Frankfort next week.