WINTER HAVEN — Ashlyn Falahee isn’t one to shy away from her emotion.
With a quick glance across the court, it’s easy to tell how she is feeling. Whether it’s celebrating after a kill or cheering on her teammates from the bench, the Lakewood Ranch High junior is constantly on a rollercoaster ride of emotion.
And Saturday afternoon proved to be no different. The Lakewood Ranch power hitter had eight kills and three blocks to spark the Lady Mustangs to a 25-18, 25-20, 25-21 victory over host Winter Haven, in the Class 6A-Region 3 finals.
With the win, Lakewood captured its first regional title and advanced to the state Final Four for the first time in school history.
“I definitely was emotional,” Falahee says. “We’ve never gotten this far and we’re a big family. It’s so much fun. I might start crying right now. It’s such a great accomplishment for Lakewood Ranch.
“I’ve always been like that ever since like sixth grade,” Falahee says. “I’ve always been so emotional getting everybody pumped up. It helps me, and it helps the team. Today was so much fun. It was awesome.”
The Lady Mustangs, who captured their second-consecutive district championship earlier this season, advanced to the regional finals last season but were swept by Tarpon Springs.
Lakewood used its experience last season as motivation heading into this year’s regional final.
“I think that helped us a lot, that we weren’t going into the regional finals for the first time like we were last year on the road,” coach Perri Hankins says. “The way we are playing, it didn’t matter where we played or who we played against. We’ve been playing well. We’ve been having great practices. The chemistry has been really good, so we were really confident coming in.”
Lakewood originally thought it would be playing at home until Winter Haven beat Tarpon Springs. But the two-hour bus ride proved to be the only inconvenience for the Lady Mustangs, who appeared nothing short of confident in their ability to reach the state semifinals.
“We came in here like we’re going to win. We’re going to do it this year,” senior hitter Mariah Robertson says. “It definitely prepared us some (playing in the regional finals last year), but it’s a new team and a new year.
“You never know what’s coming around,” Robertson says. “We did our best as a team to prepare for it knowing what happened last year, but I think we kicked it up a whole (different) notch to win this year and proceed to states.”
Lakewood controlled the match from the beginning and finished Game 1 strong, after the Lady Blue Devils pulled within 20-16. With Game 2 tied at 18, Robertson and the Lady Mustangs tallied three straight kills to spark a 4-0 run.
Winter Haven took a 7-4 lead in Game 3, before the Lady Mustangs went on a 10-2 run. The Lady Blue Devils came back to pull within 22-20, but Lakewood finished strong down the stretch, as junior Lauren Owens recorded the game-winning kill.
The Lady Mustangs rushed together, screaming in celebration of their first regional championship.
“It’s crazy,” Falahee says. “Tuesday is states. It’s so unreal right now. I don’t think anybody has actually processed it.”
“It’s just a natural high playing on the court, especially to get a win like this making history for our school, and now we’re on our way to states,” Robertson says. “It’s just an incredible thing.”
Robertson finished with eight kills, three stuffed blocks, two aces and 10 digs to pace Lakewood. Nicole Grant had five kills and one block. Emily Ruple added one kill and four digs. Owens finished with three kills, one ace and two digs, and setter Ali Milbourn added one kill, two aces and 22 assists.
Lakewood faced St. Augustine in the Class 6A state semifinals Nov. 13, in Kissimmee. Results from Tuesday’s state semifinal were unavailable as of press time Tuesday. Be sure to check YourObserver.com to see how the Lady Mustangs faired.
The winner of the state semifinal match between Lakewood and St. Augustine plays the winner of the other state semifinal between Fort Myers and Ocala Vanguard in the Class 6A state championship Nov. 14.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].