It was an all too familiar feeling of disappointment for the Apalachee volleyball team on Saturday, Oct. 19.

The Wildcats controlled the first two sets of their GHSA Class AAAAAA first-round playoff match against visiting River Ridge and took a commanding 2-0 lead, only to see the Knights recover and roll through the final three sets to pull off a stunning victory.

It was the third straight year the Wildcats had lost a best-of-five playoff match after winning the first two sets — including a loss to eventual state champion Pope in the Sweet Sixteen in 2018 — and the loss brought a sooner-than-anticipated end to a season that saw the sixth-ranked Wildcats finish 44-8 and win a second straight Region 8 championship.

But they faced a tough draw against 10th-ranked River Ridge, as the Knights came in as the No. 4 seed from a powerhouse Region 6, which swept through its Region 8 counterparts in the first round.

“It just stings,” said Apalachee coach Joey Alfonso, whose team has gone 97-12 the last two seasons with back-to-back region championships but only one playoff victory. “We knew coming in it was going to be a tough matchup. Every year it seems like we get matched up early with Region 6 or 7, and unfortunately, we’ve had great teams that haven’t had a lot of playoff success.

“The kids showed a lot of resilience and we thought we had enough going to pull it out. The first two sets were great, but they were able to make a few adjustments. Our whole region knew who we were lining up with in the first round, and we were all gunning for that region title because we felt that would give us the best chance to advance in the playoffs. It was a great season, but it has to end sometime for everyone.”

Down 6-5 in the first set Saturday, Apalachee went on a 12-1 run to seize control and wound up picking up a 25-22 victory. Then a 6-0 run early and a 6-1 run midway through the second set propelled the Wildcats to a 25-20 win and a 2-0 lead in the match.

The major turning point came midway through the third set, which was tied at 13-13 before the Knights (29-16) went on a 12-5 run to win 25-18. A 10-2 run early in the fourth set lifted River Ridge to a 25-17 win, forcing the tiebreaker.

Despite dropping the fourth set, a 7-0 run late in the set before River Ridge’s final point appeared to settle Apalachee down, but the fifth set started off disastrously for the Wildcats. River Ridge notched five aces to take an 8-1 lead right off the bat, and it proved to be insurmountable. The Wildcats eventually cut the deficit to 13-10, but the Knights scored the final two points, clinching the match when Katie Crocker’s hit was ruled out by the officials.

“They just had all the momentum on their side,” Alfonso said. “We tried some things differently because I felt like we got outcoached a little bit the last couple years, and we wanted to try to figure out what was happening after set two. The biggest thing to me is our opponents have been able to find our weakest serve receivers and they attack them. (River Ridge) played better defense at the end and covered the court better once they learned what we were doing, where we were strong and where we were weak. Their libero did a great job chasing some balls down all over the court. We still scored; we just didn’t have enough attempts because of our serve-receive. We got aced eight times in the fourth set and five more times there in the last set, and you can’t give a good team that many points. And even on the ones we didn’t get aced, we were just trying to get the ball back over the net, and they were great up front and were doing a good job setting up their offense. So ball control was a big part of it.”

It was an especially bitter ending to the season for Alfonso, whose daughter, senior Ellie Alfonso, the region player of the year, played her final game of a stellar high school career. The Wildcats will also lose senior all-region setter Olivia Swift, senior middle hitter Logan Butchart and senior reserve hitter Johnae Thompson to graduation.

“It’s a great group of seniors in general, and we’re going to miss them a ton,” Alfonso said. “Johnae didn’t get to play in this game, but she was in the locker room crying the hardest because she knows that this has been something special and it’s come to an end. That speaks volumes of what the great kids in our program are about. To have almost 100 wins in two years is special, and those four seniors deserve all the success they’ve had the last couple of years.”

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