CRESTVIEW — Trying to harness the excitement of an opening set 27-25 win, Crestview High School volleyball Coach Kathy Combest urged her crew to remain calm, poised and focused on the doorsteps of a historic win. Meanwhile, Niceville didn't panic.
Vying for its sixth district title in seven years and second straight, John Michael Plummer's crew watched Crestview fight off a set point and prevail to put the Eagles behind the eight ball early on. But like perennial powers do, the Eagles rebounded.
Kayla Henrie delivered a team-best 16 kills, Portia Rodgers and Ashley Hagood combined for 36 assists and the top-seeded Eagles won the District 1-7A title with a 25-27, 25-19, 25-19, 25-20 road win over the second-seeded, host Bulldogs.
"I really try to stay as balanced as possible with my girls," Plummer said. "Our game is serve and pass and if we continue to do those well we'll be fine. That's what I continue to tell my girls ... and that's what I told them tonight."
As for Combest, her worst fears were realized when Crestview's momentum faded away with every self-inflicted error and Niceville attack.
"They kind of let the game get emotional," she said. "They have to throw that emotion out or internalize and harness that toward what they're doing out there on the court. I wanted them to keep a clean mind and I didn't think we did that over the final few sets."
For Henrie, who was especially clutch in the decisive third set with nine kills to lead the Eagles back from 13-7 deficit, there was no other option than to fight back and head into the Region 1-7A quarterfinals with that sought-after homecourt advantage.
"We were confident in ourselves and knew we were going to win," she said. "We just had to push and stay strong and we did it."
She also contended there was no looking past Crestview, which is now 0-3 against the Eagles this year.
"We definitely didn't underestimate them," said the senior. "We had to work for this title and I'm so proud of my teammates."
One of those teammates was Ashley Hagood, who delivered nine kills to go along with a game-high 19 assists. Rodgers added 17 assists, Sami Mims chipped in seven blocks and Breana Rodriguez delivered nine kills for the Eagles, who have made 14 straight state tournament appearances. The Eagles will next host the loser of the District 2-7A championship matchup between Lincoln vs. Chiles on Tuesday, where they’ll look to advance to the region semifinals for the sixth consecutive year.
"If we can push through two games, I think we'll be well off," Plummer said.
For Crestview, the Bulldogs travel to play the winner of the District 2-7A title game for their first state tournament appearance since 2004.
And if they play like they did in the first set Thursday, the Bulldogs could turn some heads.
Getting perfect sets from Macie Adams (15 assists) and Molly Kitchen (10 assists), Jasmine Middleton delivered eight of her game-high 17 kills, the final up the middle to secure the 27-25 win.
But the Eagles would quickly answer. Getting kills from seven different hitters, Niceville responded with a 25-19 win, the final a Rodriguez kill up the left side. Then the Eagles went to Henrie and their two setters in the third set.
Henrie, who was on the receiving end of nine of the 14 assists from Hagood and Rodgers, single-handedly lifted the Eagles back from a 7-13 deficit en route to a 25-20 win. Eight of those came in a 16-point span that saw the Eagles turn a four-point deficit into a 20-17 lead.
Propelled by five aces in the final set, three of which came from Maribel Medina, the Eagles cruised to a 25-20 win.