The Fort Myers volleyball team was considered a year ahead of schedule when it won a regional championship earlier this week.
With just one senior, the Green Wave could have easily been satisfied with a trip to the Class 6A semifinals and packed it in after Jensen Beach starting raining down spikes during a dominant first set.
Instead Fort Myers, in front of a raucous home crowd Saturday, weathered the storm each time it looked as if it was getting out of hand, taking the lead late in all three sets. But, in the end, Jensen Beach’s heavy hitters closed out the Green Wave (25-22, 25-22, 26-24) to advance to its second state final in the last five years.
The Falcons (30-2), who made their fifth consecutive Final Four appearance, got 19 kills, nine service points and nine digs from senior middle hitter Madi Bell as it moves on to face New Port Richey Mitchell, which beat Ocala Forest in five sets. The championship game will be next Saturday at the University of Central Florida.
Meanwhile, Fort Myers finished its season at 20-12.
“This season was a work in progress and when they started to believe, everything started clicking,” Fort Myers coach Stephanie Martin said. “They don’t give up. They keep fighting.”
Much like Tuesday’s regional final against Charlotte, the Green Wave were overpowered early and had to fight back. Snowy Burnam and Bell pushed the Falcons out to an early 12-6 lead in the first set.
“We had to come out aggressive,” Jensen Beach coach Mike Sawtelle said. “We have a habit of working our way into a game. But we have so much respect for Fort Myers. We knew Fort Myers wouldn’t allow us to come back if we got down early. They’re just too good.”
The Green Wave capitalized off three Falcon mistakes by following with a Lena Knox kill and an Alayna Ryan ace to go up 18-13. Jensen Beach, however, scored 12 of the next 16 points led by a combined five kills from Bell and Burnam as well as one of Jenna Johnson’s 10 service points.
Senior setter Karley Justice was the driving force behind the Falcons’ victory as she finished with 35 assists, setting up the team’s big hitters to do damage. Burman had 14 kills and Kiana Sawtelle added six.
Fort Myers’ 12-10 lead in the second set quickly evaporated, but the Green Wave fought back to cut it 22-21. Bell then answered with three kills, including a tip over two blockers to finish it.
Sticking with Jensen Beach required a solid defensive effort from the Green Wave, which notched 50 digs on the afternoon.
In the third set, Fort Myers led 22-17 before making two unforced errors and Jensen Beach cut the lead to two on a Morgan McDonald block. Bell later tied the set at 24 with a block and a kill.
“They just stuck with the game plan,” Sawtelle said. “Most of the time when we’re on the attack and we make mistakes, make these unforced errors, it puts us in that bind. When we get down we have to stay with the system. They’re so mature and realize if they start freelancing, it’s not going to work.”
The Green Wave sealed their fate with two errors to end the match.
“When it came down to the crucial points we’d make one or two errors,” Martin said. “It was so close. You have to be on against them.”
Ryan tallied 13 kills for Fort Myers.