FLEMING ISLAND - In a classic county showdown in volleyball, featuring two coaches that were formerly sitting side by side, Ridgeview High went toe-to-toe at the net with Fleming Island's high-powered arsenal with four games landing in extra points until, in the final fifth game, a soft, misdirected overhead dink by the smallest athlete on the floor ended the excitement with Fleming Island emerging as winner.
"I saw that opening during the game because their hits were going to our sideline and knew I would use it, but needed to use it when I knew it would work," said Fleming Island junior libero J.J. Ramirez, a statuesqe 5'-4", who slid in behind the Golden Eagle three-man front of Maya Walker, Jasmine Robinson and Emma Richard to toss a second shot floater over the net amidst a caught-off-guard Panther defense. "They were leaning thinking I was going to set up our front, but I made the shot. It was really risky, but was really worth it."
One other intensity-added segment was the appearance for a handful of serves ofsenior Rayna Durden in the Fleming Island side of the net. Durden, with a knee injury keeping her on "guarded" practice duty, entered the second game to serve after the Panthers had surprised Fleming Island with the first 32-30 win.
"That's all she was going to do," said Walker. "She wanted badly to play in this game because she has been watching from the bench waiting to get back to full strength."
Durden, much like NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed who, with a severely injured hip from game six, played a historical role in the New York Knicks seventh game championship win over the Wilt Chamberlain-led Los Angeles Lakers in 1970, entered with Ridgeview surging to a 19-16 lead and promptly put down three scoring serves; one a mishit dig and two aces to get Fleming Island back in the game at 19-19.
For the final scoring, both teams turned game wins of 32-30 for the first two games to set up a 27-25 Ridgeview win in game three and a 29-27 win for Fleming Island to set up the final game.
For Ridgeview coach Destiny Brightman, who coached alongside Fleming Island coach Amy Walker at Orange Park High School nearly a decade ago, the fervor of the contest which featured the four straight district title for Brightman's Panthers since 2014 and a frustrating four straight early outs in regions to Bishop Kenny, the game marked a new level of tenacity for her 2019 team.
"We have never gone better than losing 3-0 to Fleming Island," said Brightman, now 14-5 with the loss snapping a seven game win streak. "With our first win over Middleburg (3-1, Sept. 17) and this game going to five games, I hope the girls now realize that they can play at a very high level. We had some mental mistakes that are expected for a game like this, but I'm extremely proud of their fight."
For Walker, who lost to Bartram Trail in the district final last year, then regrouped to get to a region final with a region semifinal win over Bartram Trail, the team's ability to focus on the final points was critical.
"When the county teams come up against us, it's their Super Bowl," said Walker, now 10-4. "Ridgeview did not do anything tricky against us, but their defense made a lot of great plays."
Walker evaluated the mental approach of her team to overcome the tenacity of Ridgeview's front of Shaniece Steer and Devynn Nickson.
"Our challenge is to stay on top of our game knowing that teams come here to play hard," said Walker. "We push mental discipline of respecting all opponents, but kids are kids and the history of the rivalry can sometimes make them think they are always going to be better. Ridgeview came to win."
In game one, Ridgeview rocketed to a 10-5 lead with senior Shaniece Steer's four scoring strikes around the Fleming Island defense with libero Ashlyn Halford handling retrieving duties of the Fleming Island thunderous three's incoming strikes. Ridgeview kept Fleming Island on their heels until an Alexa Bates ace tied the game at 19-19. Both teams battled to prevent the two-point deficit with Walker acing a serve to 26-26 and a Nickson block rejecting Robinson at the net to 31-30 before Steer pounded the gamewinner.
In game two, Ridgeview again rocketed to an 18-11 early lead behind sophomore hitter Teeya Desgoutee getting her scoring passes past defensive fronts of Robinson and Summer Hammond. Durden's entrance tied the game at 19-19 and gave Fleming Island momentum with Walker bombs tying games at 23-23, 27-27 and 30-30 before a final shot to win the game 32-30.
Ridgeview won game three 27-25 to set up a transitional effort for Fleming Island in game four that misses by Nickson and Steer gave the Golden Eagles the 29-27 win to set up the final stanza.
Fleming Island flexed some big school muscle to surge to a 12-6 lead with Richard getting the hot hand above the net with five scoring shots.
At 12-7, Robinson and Ridgeview's Amoi Wilson exchanged blows to 13-8 before a long volley between the two defenses ended with Desgoutte stuffing a scoring shot in front of Hammond to 13-9 as both teams braced for another extended game.
Fleming Island setter Kailey DiPaula had her own scoring shot to 14 before Ramirez dropped her gamewinner.
At Saturday's St. Johns River Athletic Conference championship game, Fleming Island lost a 2-1 match to Bartram Trail. The Golden Eagles got to the final with wins over Matanzas and St. Augustine. Fleming Island has a senior night game with Middleburg on Tues., Oct. 8.
Also in the SJRAC tournament, Middleburg beat Nease and St. Augustine, but lost to Bartram Trail. The Broncos beat St. Augustine in the third place game. The Lady Broncos finish their regular season with another tough three-game slate; 8A-Fleming Island (Oct. 8, 12-4, region finalist 2018), at 4A-Santa Fe (Oct. 10, 12-7, 6A runnerup 2018) and 6A-Ocala Forest (Oct. 12, 18-3, 7A region semifinalist, beat MHS in region quarters). Middleburg will play Forest at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
District Tournaments (area teams)
District 1-7A: Hosted by Mandarin, Oct. 14-17 (Oakleaf)
District 3-6A: Hosted by Fleming Island, Oct. 14-17 (Fleming Island)
District 3-5A: Hosted by Middleburg, Oct. 14-17 (MHS, OPHS, RHS)
District 4-5A: Hosted by Matanzas, Oct. 14-17 (CHS)
District 3-4A: Hosted by Yulee, Oct. 14-17 (Keystone Heights)
District 3-2A: Hosted by Christs Church, Oct. 14-17 (SJCDS)