LEBANON The Beech and Portland prep volleyball teams don’t go off script … at least not lately.
For the seventh time over the last two seasons, the District 9-AAA rivals played a match that lasted five games on Thursday evening.
It was the Lady Buccaneers who experienced the lucky seven, rallying to win the final four points and capture a 25-27, 25-20, 17-25, 25-18, 16-14 victory in the 9-AAA Tournament championship match at Wilson Central High School.
“It feels amazing,” Beech junior libero Veronica Gutierrez said. “It feels great.”
The two teams split four meetings last season, and they have alternated wins over three matches this season.
“Playing against Portland, we know every single person on the team,” Gutierrez said. “They’re family to us. We love them. I know they love us.
“When we play on that court, we’re fighting for the same thing. In the end, we’re still family. We play our hearts out.”
The Lady Panthers were the regular-season champions and top seed, with their only loss coming to the visiting Lady Bucs in the two teams’ first district contest of the regular season.
Beech (36-9) was the tournament’s No. 3 seed, having lost four matches to 9-AAA foes.
“It is disappointing,” Portland head coach Rob Lesemann said. “We’ve played hard all year. We went 13-1 in the regular season. Beech is the only team we’ve dropped a match to, and that was the first district game.
“I felt like we were going to beat them. The girls are disappointed. We’ll come back on Tuesday night (in the region tournament) ready to play and be looking to win the region.”
A year ago, it was the Lady Panthers who won the 9-AAA Tournament, and the Lady Buccaneers rebounded to win the region.
“It’s huge,” Lady Buccaneer head coach Grant Harford said. “This is the first district championship since the 90s I believe. It’s huge to be able to replicate that again.”
Portland (30-7) surged out to an 8-4 lead in the fifth game, with senior outside hitter Abby Akins winning six of those points with kills.
Beech battled back to tie it at 9, 10 and 12, but Akins produced back-to-back kills to give her squad two match points.
However, Lady Buc senior outside hitter Riley Sperlich came through with a cross-court kill, and the Lady Panthers hit a ball out of play to retie the decisive game at 14.
“They made some big plays,” Lesemann said. “They made the plays when they had to make them. It wasn’t that we didn’t hit the ball. They made the digs and turned it around on us.”
Another kill by Sperlich gave her squad a match point, and a Portland pass that barely cleared the net was quickly tapped down by sophomore middle hitter Kailey Clark, giving her squad the victory.
“The game is all mental,” Gutierrez said. “Everything is mental. You have to face your fear.
“We believe in each other. That’s what pulls us together. If you know and you believe it, you can strive to do it. That’s what got us through the games, our mental toughness.”
Harford added, “I’m very pleased. It’s what I’ve expected. It’s what I’ve demanded of them the entire season, to be aggressive. That aggressiveness turned into resiliency, the refusal to lose.”
The Lady Panthers opened the match by storming out to a 7-1 lead, but game one was tied at 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 before Akins ended it with a kill off of a Beech block.
Beech senior Elizabeth Epley served up seven consecutive points in the second game, breaking a 12-12 tie en route to tying the match.
Portland stormed out to an 11-4 lead in the third game to retake the lead, but Lady Buc senior Saidee McDaniel served up three consecutive points in the fourth game, creating a 13-7 advantage en route to forcing a fifth game.
“It’s a roller coaster,” Lesemann said. “It turns very quickly. You get one girl up there, and she’s on a roll serving. You get a couple of shanked passes. The next thing you know, there’s doubt. Then, you finally get it straightened out.”
Harford added, “In volleyball when you have two very evenly-matched teams, it just comes down to one or two-point swings. Especially in game five, they just went our way.”
Akins and freshman teammate Marlayna Bullington were joined on the all-tournament team by Sperlich, Saidee McDaniel, sophomore Chloee McDaniel and Gutierrez, who was named the most valuable player.
“In the back row, I gave her the responsibility of (covering) the most amount of court space,” Harford said of Gutierrez. “She handled it. She had hands on every single hit. We were in that game because of her defense.”
Gutierrez added, “I love it. It’s fine (not being a hitter). That’s okay to me. If I’m good at my job, I do what I need to do. They (the hitters) do what they need to do. I love them getting the spotlight. That’s okay to me. I’m happy for them when they do their job well. I want to do my job well. I know that they can do it as well.”
Beech will host the Region 5-AAA Tournament on Tuesday. Portland will face District 10-AAA champion West Creek in the first semifinal match at 4 p.m., with Beech facing 10-AAA runner-up Springfield at 5:30. The semifinal winners earn berths in one of eight Class AAA sectional matches on Thursday and will also play for the regional championship at 7 p.m.
Reach Craig Harris at 615-575-7138 or on Twitter @HarrisGNESports.