Watching Columbus and Sandy Creek play volleyball on Wednesday in the Class AAAA semifinals was like watching a chess match — whenever one team seized the advantage, the other came storming back.
Columbus rallied in sets one and two, but Sandy Creek battled back in sets three and four.
And then, checkmate.
The Lady Blue Devils took control in the decisive fifth set, claiming a 3-2 (25-19, 25-23, 22-25, 20-25, 15-8) victory and advancing to the state championship for the second consecutive season.
The fact that Wednesday’s win came over a region rival and the team that topped Columbus for the 2012 state title made it that much sweeter.
“They have a great team,” Columbus coach Donna Fleming said. “Hats off to them. Last time we played them (this season), it wasn’t nearly this challenging. This time, it was a dogfight.”
This was the fifth time the two teams had faced each other this season, with Columbus taking four of the five matches. Last time, in the Area 3-AAAA championship, the Lady Blue Devils won easily in three sets.
From the start, it was clear it wouldn’t be the same on Wednesday.
The teams traded points for the majority of the first set until Sandy Creek began to gain an advantage, taking as much as a four-point lead (17-13) and maintaining a three-point lead at 18-15 before Columbus was able to regain some momentum.
When it did, it didn’t let up. Columbus scored 10 of the final 11 points to win 25-19.
But again, in the second set, the teams battled to a stalemate at 20-20. Then, at 23-22, Lady Blue Devils middle hitter Brianna Gogins spiked the ball onto Sandy Creek’s side of the net with authority to go up by two. Two points later, Columbus would close out the set to put it on the brink of victory.
When Columbus battled back from eight down in the third set, cutting Sandy Creek’s lead to 23-22, it appeared it would once again pull out a hard-fought victory. Instead, the Lady Patriots hung on for wins in that set and the fourth, setting the stage for the decisive finale.
“The seniors had to step up,” Gogins said. “We realized that could be our last game. We had to step up and play. Set 5 was the most important set, because it was win or go home. You can’t make any errors because it’s only 15 points. We had to take control early and give ourselves a cushion.”
And they did. A 7-1 run, culminating in an ace that sent the crowd into a frenzy, gave Columbus a 13-6 lead in the set. A few moments later, they clinched the victory.
Gogins had 17 kills, four blocks and six digs to lead the way for Columbus. Shardonee Hayes added 12 kills and five blocks, Brittany Griner and Michelle Vatral each had eight kills, and Madison Fleming notched 40 assists and five aces.
Responding to someone who called the match ‘fun,’ Fleming laughed.
“Fun? I don’t know about fun,” she said, smiling. “Stressful, maybe.”
The atmosphere, however, was second to none, she said. The gym was packed, coaches and players from other school teams were on hand, and it was as loud as she’d heard it. Gogins said, outside of the state championship game last year, Wednesday’s was the best environment she had played in.
“Yeah, not counting the state championship, this was the best,” she said. “It helped a ton to have everyone keeping the energy up out there.”
“This is just a sign of how far volleyball has come since 2003,” Fleming added.
Columbus will try to keep that excitement going on Saturday, when they take on Marist at Marietta High in the finale.
Wednesday at Columbus
Sandy Creek 19 23 25 25 8
Columbus 25 25 22 20 15
Team leaders: Columbus, Brianna Gogins, 17 kills, 4 blocks, 6 digs, 1 ace, Shardonee Hayes, 12 kills, 5 blocks, 3 digs, Brittany Griner, 8 kills, 2 blocks, 3 digs, Michelle Vatral, 8 kills, 1 block, 3 digs, Ki’Anna Duncan, 20 digs, 1 assist, Madison Fleming, 40 assists, 5 aces, 1 kill, 1 block, 6 digs, Nancy Hatcher, 11 digs, 2 aces, 2 assists. Records: Columbus, 42-14. Next: Columbus, Saturday vs. Marist at Marietta High (state championship).