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"One of our goals was to come here and win this preseason tournament," said Emily Gore, head coach of Chiefland varsity volleyball.
They did. Chiefland played scrappy, resourceful ball, taking three games in the first round to put down a more talented Williston team, then finishing off host Bronson in two games in the championship round.
In the finishes of the four-team field, which saw Chiefland first, Bronson second, Williston third and Cedar Key fourth, every coach saw finetuning to be done, but also reasons to celebrate.
Chiefland tackled Williston in the first match on the night, surprising the Lady Devils with a 25-14 win in the first game. The Lady Indians maintained serve and played the net mercilessly, led by Taylore Fuller. They controlled the ball without letting Williston ever get started.
The Devils tightened up to take the second game 25-19, digging themselves out of a 4-0 hole and into a 7-4 lead on Laurring Howard's serve. Kim Dobbins and Mallary Brochetti led the attack, set up by Kene Mincey and Crissy Rawls. Rawls closed the game out with two aces on three tries in her last service.
Williston looked to polish off Chiefland in the decider, winding up a 7-2 lead early. But Chiefland's Charissa Morris served up nine straight points, including a pair of aces, to bring the Indians ahead 14-10 at game point. A bum serve cost Williston the next point, game and match.
Cedar Key head coach Cheryl Allen, who brought a varsity squad of seven plus one experienced middle school player, found to her delight, that her team played competitively with two teams - Bronson and Williston - that are perennial contenders in their districts. The upstart Sharks stole the first match opener from Bronson 25-22 on power hitting by Samantha Beckham, set up by Jordan Watson and Michelle DiMaggio. Miranda Haire, serving the last three points for the Sharks, skimmed an ace serve to the back line for the game.
Bronson looked ready in the second game. Brittany Smith, Jessica Thomas and Christine Schroeder hammered Cedar Key from the service line, with Schroeder serving six straight points to an 18-9 Eagle lead. Bronson's own errors let the Sharks creep back into the game, and Haire pulled off another astonishing string of nine service points, including five aces. Bronson broke her serve, however, and Smith dealt two aces for the win.
The Eagles led wire to wire in game three, again led by their strong serve. Bronson win the decider 15-10.
Cedar Key returned to the floor immediately for the consolation final against Williston. Dimaggio kept Beckham set up on the net and Watson served consistently well. But tired hitting and tough defense from Williston allowed the Devils to creep ahead to a 25-18 win.
Williston looked hotter in the second game, with Howard's serves apparently unreturnable by the fatigued Sharks. With a service change, Brochetti came to the line and was just as unhittable. Williston stretched the lead to 16-6 before Cedar Key rallied. DiMaggio and Beckham battered the ball to get back to within seven, but the Devils snatched away the deciding 25-17 win as Dobbins drove a Cedar Key serve into the floor.
With a loss and a win, Williston head coach Kim Nivala said her team had suffered some unexpected nerves.
"We worked on some things last week, and I thought we were past that, but we had the jitters against Chiefland," she said. "Today we learned not to take any team lightly."
That said, she was still pleased with her team's progress. "We have all the pieces; we just have to put the puzzle together."
Allen was very happy with the way the Sharks played over their heads.
"If I had to tell them anything, I'd tell them we beat ourselves. Williston didn't beat us," she said. "I think we hung with these teams - we competed. I'm really proud of them."
Chiefland returned to face Bronson in the finale, and the first game of the match was a battle. After trading serves to 10-8 Chiefland, Morris stepped to the line for the Indians and stretched the lead to six. Brittany Davis served the last five points for a quick 25-13 win for the Indians.
Bronson wouldn't go quietly. Despite their inexperience, they were a game squad and ran up a fast 6-0 lead on a string of Brittany Griffin aces early in the second game. Elizabeth Gay is the Eagles big gun, and she powered the ball past the Chiefland blockers to stretch the lead to 10-3. Erratic hitting by Bronson let the Indians back in the door, however, as Fuller and Morris hit their way to a 14-all tie, then a 17-14 lead.
At 24-21 Chiefland, Bronson battled their way back from game point by following Sara Shouse's serves, rallying to within one point. But Chiefland took over service and Davis drove the return into the floor for the 27-25 Indian win.
"I'm definitely not happy with our lack of focus in the second game, but we pulled it out," said Gore. "We definitely wanted to win this."
Bronson head coach Sherrie Schuler, who also has two beginning players on her squad, credited her young team for its ability to recover.
"We're a work in progress, but I saw some good things," she said. "It's always disappointing to lose, but the way we came back in that last game shows me we can come from behind."
Chiefland 2-1 over Williston, 25-14, 19-25, 15-10
Bronson 2-1 over Cedar Key, 22-25, 25-22, 15-10
Williston 2-0 over Cedar Key, 25-18, 25-17
Chiefland 2-0 over Bronson, 25-13, 27-25