STAUNTON – Gerald Johnson paced behind the Robert E. Lee bench Saturday night. He kept telling the Lee Ladies to hit it. Just hit it. Then he paced some more.
Johnson, a command sergeant major in the United States Army, was in his dress uniform as he cheered on his daughter, Lee High senior Amber Johnson. At one point, he admitted how nervous he was, not that he had to say it. His face told the story.
Lee High was playing for a regional championship and, after taking an early lead in the match, it was in some trouble after dropping back-to-back sets to Buffalo Gap. The fifth set would decide the winner. Johnson could do nothing but watch, at times not even able to do that as the set went back and forth.
But in the end, the worried look on his face turned into a giant smile. And that nervous feeling in his gut, it was long gone, replaced by the pure enjoyment of watching his daughter and her teammates celebrate.
A week after getting swept by Buffalo Gap in the Conference 36 finals, Lee High turned the tables on the Bison Saturday night — barely. Lee High beat Gap 25-22, 26-24, 21-25, 18-25, 15-9 at the Paul Hatcher Gym to claim the Region 2A East volleyball championship.
With the win, Lee High will host a 2A state semifinal match Tuesday with Giles making the trip to Staunton. Meanwhile, Buffalo Gap is still alive, but will have to hit Interstate 81 South Tuesday for a trip to Marion, which beat Giles in the 2A West championship Saturday. Marion was the 2A state runner-up last year, falling to Goochland in the championship.
After Lee looked like it might sweep the Bison, up two sets and leading 21-20 in the third set, Buffalo Gap had a different thought as it fought back to force a fifth set.
In the fifth, Lee grabbed an 8-4 lead after a kill by MacKensie Bowles sparked a 4-0 run. Gap got back to within two twice, but could never get any closer. Lee finished the match on a 3-0 run with help from a block by Jennifer Williams.
“To be here and not have to go all the way down to Marion, that’s incredibly important,” Williams said. “Especially with all of our fans that show up, we’re just so blessed to have all of them.”
Williams finished with 24 kills and seven blocks, while Bowles had 13 kills and 24 digs for the Lee Ladies.
Abby Flint finished with nine kills and 14 digs for Gap, part of a spectacular defensive effort by the Bison. Both teams played tremendous defense all night. Bowles had 24 digs for Lee, while Lindsey Bosserman had 21 and Williams added 20 more digs in the win.
“They did really good coming back,” said Gap coach Elizabeth Ashby of her team’s ability to stretch the match to five sets. “We just had some things that didn’t go our way a couple of times, some bad passes, some net things that shouldn’t have been happening.”
Lee got the early lead in the opening set on back-to-back kills by Nellie Garrison and Williams to take a 5-1 advantage, but the Bison rallied to eventually take a lead following a 7-0 run highlighted by a pair of kills by Kaylee Mills, who had 10 kills in the match.
From that point forward the set featured eight ties, including seven straight rallies where the teams traded point for point. With the set tied 22-22, Lee finally got the upper hand, scoring the final three points for the win.
Much like the first set, Lee got an early lead in the second, but a big run — this time 5-0 with kills by Flint and Mills — tied the match at 11-11. There were six ties and four lead changes the rest of the way, and Lee had to fight off set point twice to survive. But survive it did as the Lee Ladies scored the final four points to take a 26-24 win and go up two in the match.
The first two sets combined lasted almost an hour.
Like the first two sets, and to no one’s surprise, the third set also was back-and-forth, but when Lee went up 18-15 following a 6-0 run, it appeared the sweep may go Lee’s way on this Saturday night. Gap, however, was having none of that. The Bison outscored Lee 10-3 the rest of the way to cut Lee’s lead in the match to 2-1.
Gap gained control of the fourth set on a block by Emily Hanger that put the Bison up 15-10. Hanger finished the night with five blocks to go with 21 kills. Lee managed to climb within three twice, but a late 4-0 run, sparked by a pair of aces by Rachel Wirth, ended any hope of a Lee comeback as the match went to a fifth-and-deciding set. Wirth served five aces in the match, and added eight kills.
Lee coach Jan Williams said she was confident her team could come out on top in a fifth set, especially after going to five sets in both the regional quarterfinals and semifinals and coming out on top both times.
“I wasn’t worried about them,” she said. “Tuesday and Thursday they came out in that fifth game strong right off the bat. It just seems to be what they’re doing. I just expected it from them.”
Jennifer Williams said she has seen a difference in the team from last week to this week, part of which she credits to playing tough opponents like George Mason and Bruton in the regionals.
“We played some incredible teams and we fought through it and realized the potential that we had,” said the Lee junior. “We got in the swing of things.”