JACKSONVILLE | Bishop Kenny is going home after another stellar season, and Ponte Vedra is staying home after the latest installment of the area’s most intense volleyball playoff rivalry.
The Sharks bounced the Crusaders in the Class 6A state semifinals for the second consecutive season, winning 3-1 in what has become an annual playoff tradition. Saturday’s meeting marked the seventh straight season that the two have met in the playoffs, with the future almost certain to include more.
Kenny (18-13) had won five in a row before the Sharks cleared the hurdle in 2016 and then added another this year.
Ponte Vedra’s 23-25, 25-21, 25-23, 25-19 win sends it back to the state championship to face dynasty Orlando Bishop Moore, albeit, with a nice perk. Since UNF is hosting the state championship this year, Ponte Vedra (24-5) essentially gets to stay home for its shot at gold when it faces the Hornets on Nov. 18 at 10 a.m.
The Hornets, a two-time defending state champ, swept Ponte Vedra for the 6A crown last season.
The Sharks got quite a bit younger since that loss to Bishop Moore last year, and, at least on paper, didn’t figure to be nearly the force to return. With just two seniors, another trip to the title match seemed like a lofty goal at the outset.
“It was about us finding the right combinations of things,” said Sharks coach Robin Mignerey. “I think as the year started and going through the preseason, we were young. And going on through, we played and beat all the local powerhouses. That helped build up a lot of self-confidence.”
That youth aspect was applicable to both the Sharks and Crusaders (one senior), who both seemed far too young to be a force in the state playoffs. But by the time the postseason started, it was clear that those two teams had grown up quickly and were on yet another collision course for the final four.
“Yes, we expected to [be back],” said Sharks senior setter Savannah Fowler. “We had some good talent coming up. This team is really close. We’ve got good composure. We’re all very cool, calm and collected. That [attitude] helps keep everyone on a good, steady track.”
The break that Ponte Vedra needed came in the third game. Eve Beech pushed across one of her two aces to snap a 22-all tie and Ponte Vedra scratched out another point after that. The Sharks’ play at the net in the final two points of the third decided it.
“The third game was the pivotal moment of the match,” said Kenny coach Suzanne Winkler. “You lose within two when there were probably five to seven [close officiating] calls, that kind of took our energy. I was very proud of our effort and how we came out. We came into this match at the end of the season [playing at the level] where we wanted to be. Just overall for the city of Jacksonville in volleyball this year, this has been incredible. All the teams [seven] in the state semifinals is just amazing.”
Ponte Vedra took control for good early in the fourth, snapping a 7-all tie on a service error. Three errors in the service or return game helped the Sharks stretch that lead as high as eight points down the stretch, although Kenny made things tight at the finish. Jordan Gregg and Gabby Keller took control the rest of the way for the Sharks, whose defense and height forced Kenny into problems throughout the match.
Josephine Morrill had 18 kills for Kenny, with Paige Johnson (17), Keller (12) and Gregg (nine) powering the Sharks. Cameron Fenner had 43 assists and Brigid Kiely 32 digs for the Crusaders. Sophia Ervanian (34 digs) and Fowler (47 assists) led Ponte Vedra.