By REID TUCKER
After playing five pitched sets, it all came down to one blocked serve-return for Walton to claim the district volleyball championship for the first time since 2002.
The Lady Braves’ Sierra Contreras delivered not only the final serve of the match, held Thursday, Oct. 25, on Walton’s home floor, she also rushed to the net to block the attack of Pensacola Catholic’s Hana Flurry to seal the deal on the win. Walton (17-5) felled the Lady Crusaders (17-7) by scores of 21-25, 26-16, 30-28, 17-25, 15-12, marking only the second time in school history that the Lady Braves got a district title. Contreras, a senior who had not beaten Catholic in her high school career, wept tears of joy after securing the final point.
“It was so nerve-racking, but it was fun,” she said. “It was very exciting, that’s for sure. I’m so proud of everyone. We knew we could do it, but we had to get our stuff together. We didn’t lose faith.”
Walton stuck right with Catholic in the first set, tying the game several times, but the Lady Crusaders pulled ahead from the 19-all stalemate to win it by four points thanks to service aces from Mallory Herrmann and a few home-team bobbles. The Lady Braves dropped to 15-6 after switching courts but, unfazed, they came back after lengthy scoring rallies from Camri Thomas, setting the stage to take the win by 10 points. The third and fourth sets were back-and-forth affairs, with Walton eventually winning the third on kills from Contreras and freshmen Ashley Harper and Haley Paulk, though Catholic’s Rachel Burkhardt ensured her team took the win in the fourth set by punching in 25-17 game point.
With the match tied two games apiece, the stage was set for a shootout in the fifth set. Thomas lengthened Walton’s early lead to 6-0 from service, though Catholic went on a 6-1 scoring run with Emily Emmons serving before her team mate, Juliann Laird, tied the game 8-all. The Lady Crusaders went up 10-8 but out-of-bounds hits plus kills and blocks from both teams’ power players tied the game through 12-12 before Contreras set the Lady Braves on a scoring rally culminating in her block for the 15-12 win.
Contreras and Harper led the Lady Braves on the night, with the former scoring on 11 kills and two aces plus two blocks and 23 digs, while the latter accounted for 19 kills, nine blocks and 15 digs. Courtney Brown and Shalyn Bailey were defensive powerhouses, with 20 and 27 digs, respectively. Thomas led the team in aces, with eight to her credit.
The win was not only the second district volleyball championship in a decade for Walton, it was also the second against Catholic since head Coach Marla Harrell took over in 2004, with her first victory coming in 2008, when the Lady Braves won in Pensacola. Harrell, like Contreras and indeed the rest of the team was near-speechless.
“It’s just exciting, that’s all I know,” Harrell said. “I knew we could do it all along, the girls just had to decide in themselves that they were going to do it and they did a wonderful job. I’m so proud of these girls and what they accomplished. It was a great night.
“We took some chances tonight and played out of comfort zone. I think that pushed [Catholic] out of their comfort zone. We kept the pressure on them to the point where, when we got a lead, they couldn’t recover.”
Walton’s last district championship win came during the tenure of former head coach Terri Jenkins, whose team took the title in 2002. Jenkins, who remained on the coaching staff, said this season’s accomplishments came as the direct result of teamwork and selflessness on the part of every individual team member.
“It’s a pleasure to watch the kind of girls that we have play hard as a team,” Jenkins said. “From the first person on the floor it was a total team effort this season. Everyone hung in there through thick and thin. When we were struggling we stuck together so we knew even when we got behind tonight that we could still come back and win.”
The Lady Braves defeated Marianna in the semifinal two days prior to the clash against Catholic, dropping the Lady Bulldogs in four sets with scores of 25-14, 25-20, 19-25, 25-9. Contreras was similarly the Lady Braves’ leading performer, with nine kills, one ace and 19 digs. She shared credit for one of two blocks with Thomas, who had eight kills, one ace and 15 digs. Bailey and Brown had 18 and 13 digs, respectively, but Brown also had two aces on the night.
Team Notes: Marla Harrell is now 118-80 heading into the state playoffs as the Braves’ volleyball coach in eight seasons. Walton record versus Pensacola Catholic stands at 2-25 since 2001. The Braves have qualified for the state playoffs nine times in school history, according to the FHSAA website, with their first appearance occurring in 1998. The Braves have captured two district titles in school history and have qualified seven times as a district runner-up. Walton is 5-8 in eight previous playoff appearances. The 1998 squad, coached by Carol Richardson posted a 2-1 mark in the playoffs, losing to Williston in the Regional final. Walton has lost their last two state playoff match-ups, first falling in four sets at Pensacola Catholic in 2008 and then in three sets against Florida High in 2011. If Walton defeats Tallahassee’s Godby High on Tuesday, the Braves will face off with the winner of the Pensacola Catholic at Florida High game in the second round of state play on Nov. 6.