LISBON-After splitting two regular-season matches that each went five sets, it seemed only fitting that the Columbiana and Heartland Christian volleyball teams staged another thriller in the Division IV sectional tournament.
Down two-sets-to-none, the Lions staged a rally to force yet another fifth set between the teams, before the Clippers ultimately prevailed for an exhausting 25-22, 25-20, 23-25, 26-28, 15-8 win Wednesday at Lisbon High School.
"Wow," Columbiana coach Linda Knox said. "That's all I have to say. Our team wanted it more than anything. We've been battling hard these last few weeks and tonight they refused to lose."
The Clippers (14-11) move onto the district semifinal on Tuesday where they will meet top-seeded Western Reserve.
Shayla Ray led the way with 29 kills, while Emily Witmer had 29 digs and senior Carly Sawders had the best match of her career with 19 blocks. Sawders-who is in her first season of varsity volleyball-began the season on the bench before working her way into the starting lineup.
"Playing on varsity with all my friends this season has been very exciting," Sawders said. "The adrenaline and intensity I felt tonight was amazing."
The first two sets were both hotly contested, with each one tied in the late stages. However, it was the Clippers able to come up with the big plays down the stretch each time to seize a commanding lead.
"We came out on fire," Ray said. "Heartland always comes out with a lot of effort and we did a great job of matching it early in the game. We always have to play our hardest against them."
Columbiana came out aggressively attacking the ball early in the third set and seized a quick 8-2 lead. With her team looking dead in the water, Heartland coach Susanne Shields called timeout.
"I told the girls that this wasn't us," Shields said. "I told them that win or lose, I wanted to see my real team out there."
Shields also told Kristen Osborn-one of the team's leading hitters-to be more assertive, and the junior responded, leading a furious Heartland rally. The Lions finally took the lead 17-16, but had to endure five ties and several prolonged volleys to stay alive. Osborn finished with 37 kills and 38 digs while Bonnie Flynn had 16 points and 23 digs and Ginny Burgess had 12 points and 51 assists.
"Kristen really started killing the ball in the third set," Shields said. "I told her I wanted them to feel her presence and she went out and displayed what she's capable of."
The Lions carried their momentum over to the fourth set and looked ready to run the Clippers over, building up a 19-8 lead. Now it was the Clippers turn to reach deep.
"I told the team that in case they didn't remember we needed three sets to win the match," Knox said. "Sometimes this year when we've gotten big leads we've tended to get complacent. Credit Heartland, Osborn and Flynn are outstanding players and they always make it hard on us."
The Clippers awoke and erased the entire Heartland lead. In front, 25-24, Columbiana was actually serving for match point before the Lions staged one last rally to grind out four of the next five points and force the fifth set.
"Even though we didn't win that fourth set, coming back like we did was huge," Knox said. "We had the look of fear in our eyes and that comeback was enough to inflate the whole team."
With Heartland running on fumes, the Clippers pulled away in the fifth set, going on a 6-1 run to slam the door.
"We played our hearts out tonight," Sawders said. "We didn't make it easy at times, but we wanted it so bad that we were willing to do anything to win."
"Our players have nothing to hang their head about," Shields said. "They gave it everything they had and just fell a little short."