OVERTON -- For the first time since 2004, the Axtell Wildcats will not play in the Fort Kearny Conference Tournament championship match.
After finishing off the first set by scoring the final eight points Tuesday night in Overton, the Class D2 No. 8-ranked Wildcats gave up a 23-21 lead in the second set then got outscored 8-1 in the middle of the third set as Elm Creek won 14-25, 26-24, 25-21.
Overton, the top seed, had to fight off upset-minded Elwood to advance to the finals with a 25-19, 24-26, 25-22 victory in the other semifinal.
Overton and Elm Creek will meet in the championship match at 7 p.m. Thursday in Sumner.
Reaching the final has been the Elm Creek girls' goal since the beginning of the season, coach Brandi McCarter said.
“They've been working for this all season. … This is definitely a big goal accomplished tonight,” McCarter said.
The shrieks and cries of joy echoed throughout the gym when the last point went on the board. And the players had a long way to go to be happier than the coach.
“I'm enjoying this moment right now. We'll think about Overton tomorrow,” McCarter said. “This is my first time in the championship as a head coach. I've been in the championship game as an assistant, but I've played for that third place too many years. It's time to play for that championship.”
And beating Axtell (14-6) made it even sweeter.
“They've had quite a run there for a while. We played them, I think three or four years in a row, in this match, and they beat us. Year after year we would go three sets with them and come up short,” she said.
Their fears of coming up short this year got pushed aside when the Buffaloes (16-6) rallied from a 7-6 deficit to lead 16-8. The run included kills by Shelbi Brown, Torie Miner and Hannah Robbins.
Miner led the Buffs with 12 kills and Brown had seven. Three other players had four or more.
But Elm Creek's biggest advantage on the stat sheet was blocking, where Elm Creek had nine and Axtell had three.
Brown, Casi Sutherland and Jackie Burkey had four each. Miner and Sutherland teamed up for two blocks in the Buffs' final three points.
The Wildcats finished with a 40-34 edge in kills. Carlie Prososki set the pace with 11, while Kit Wells, Hannah Kring and Kaylee Becker had nine each.
Seventeen of the Wildcats' 40 kills came in the first set.
“The first set we just failed to show up. I just think we had some nerves,” McCarter said. “They watched Axtell play last night and knew they were going to be tough. Honestly, I think they psyched themselves out a little bit.
“I told them before the second set, ‘just play your game.' That's what they did the second and third sets and it worked out for them.”
Overton (21-2), ranked No. 6 in Class D1, looked like it was going to wrap up a two-set victory, leading 24-19 in the second set. But Elwood (12-9) had other plans.
With the return of Rachel Mahlberg from a knee injury, the Pirates had an almost unstoppable weapon from the serving court. She served out the second set, a run that included two aces, and she put together another run in the third set, tying the game at 19-19 with two more aces in a 5-point run.
A kill by Madison Beavers brought the ball and the lead back to Overton and Beavers delivered two more kills in the next three points to finish with a team-high 15 kills. Grace Ecklund added 13 kills while Kinzy Enochs had six kills, four ace serves and 34 assists for the Eagles.
“We knew Elwood was going to be tough. They played us tough last time without Mahlberg,” Overton coach Hayley Ryan said. “That second set, for some reason, we started making some unforced errors, then one thing led to another.”
Mahlberg finished with eight kills and five ace serves. Tiffany Finkral pounded nine kills and Anna Eggers had seven. Eggers also had two blocks.
“We missed some key serves and made some errors at key moments,” Elwood coach Codina Schutz said.
But pushing the Eagles to three sets made her proud.
“That comeback in the second set, we could have rolled over and not played hard. I was very happy with the way the girls played tonight,” Schutz said.
Elwood made 16 attack errors and five service errors, numbers that were dwarfed by Overton's 22 attack errors and six serving errors. The Eagles never scored on a block, either.
But the Eagles enjoyed a 44-29 advantage in kills, and each team had 10 ace serves.
“The girls … have been faced with this situation before. They've been in a lot of close sets and three-set matches and I think that helped get them in a position where they didn't freeze ¾ they played it one point at a time,” Ryan said.
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