By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
Top seeded Osceola had to rally from a 2-1 game deficit but came-from-behind to defeat Lake Nona (18-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-19, 15-11) to claim the Class 7A, District 6 volleyball championship. With the win, the Kowboys (23-4) will host a regional quarterfinal game next Wednesday home.
While the Kowboys were claiming their ninth district championship and first since 2020, two other Osceola County teams were also busy competing for a district titles. In Class 6A, Region 7, second seeded St. Cloud (13-12) dropped a four-set road decision (25-18, 25-14, 22-25, 25-14) to top-seeded Lakeland; while Gateway advanced to the Class 5A, District championship with impressive wins over Bartow (25-14, 25-8, 25-13) and Auburndale (27-25, 25-20, 22-25, and 28-16). But in the championship game against Lake Wales (14-4), the top-seeded Panthers lost a five-set heartbreaker to the Highlanders (25-22, 24-26, 16-25, 25-19, 15-17). Both St. Cloud and Gateway will now wait to see if they garner and at-large bid to the regional championship.
Wednesday’s win over Lake Nona had little resemblance to the regular season match between the two teams back on Sept. 9, where the Kowboys dispatched the Lions in three straight sets (25-21, 25-17, 21-18). “Give Lake Nona a ton of credit, they have improved greatly since when we saw them earlier in the season,” Osceola head coach Carrie Palmi said. “Tonight, we made some mistakes and fell behind early but we turned it on in the final two sets. Overall, I thought we played well. Getting back Eimy Negro, who missed the last nine matches due to injury, was a huge lift for us, but this was truly a team victory.”
Lake Nona, who has developed a good rivalry with both county schools Osceola and Toho, fell to 16-6 in the season but will most likely advance to regionals as an at-large team.
The match did not have a promising start for the Kowboys.
The teams swapped points in the first set but with the score tied 11-11, Lake Nona went on a run to take a 20-14 lead. From there, they were able to easily cruise to a six-point win.
Osceola had to rally from a 9-3 deficit in the second set to level the match at one game each. Senior Kaitlyn Taylor played a key role in the comeback with nine kills in the game – including two that put Osceola ahead for the first time in the set at 21-20 and a third one that pushed the Kowboys to set point at 24-21.
From there, the Kowboys looked poised to take the third set when they had the serve and a 23-20 lead, but several ball handling errors and a service ace Nona’s Jerielys Giraud sparked a 4-1 run and Anna Pantano found a hole in the Osceola defense and tapped it over the net for the game-winning point as Lake Nona scored the final five points of the game.
Osceola looked poised to cruise to an easy victory in the fourth set, jumping out to leads of 15-6 and 20-11 in the game; but the Lions came roaring back behind the outstanding play of outside hitter Emma Gongora and some several ball handling errors by Osceola as the Lake Nona cut the lead to 22-18. But a thunderous spike by Taylor and a double hit by Nona later gave the Kowboys the 25-19 victory in the game to set up the “Race to 15” final set.
With the score tied 5-5 final set, Osceola used a 3-0 mini-run to take an 8-5 lead. After trading points, a Palmi spike upped the lead to 13-9 and another big spike from Palmi three points later gave the Kowboys match-point. After a long rally, a Taylor kill gave Osceola the game and match.
For the contest, Cate Palmi had two big blocks to go with her 24 kills. Taylor added 22 kills and an ace; while senior Ahnika Johnston nine kills and three big blocks. “Ahnika had a great game for us tonight. She communicated well defensively and really made some key plays with her ball placement,” Palmi added. Gongora had a huge game for Lake Nona, recording 15 kills, 3 blocks and a pair of aces. Pantano had 10 kills and two aces.