By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
For the fourth time in school history, the Celebration’s boy volleyball team will make a trip to the FHSAA State Tournament. The Storm earned their way to the championship with a straight-set sweep over Horizon, winning 25-23, 25-15, 29-27 on Tuesday night in a regional final.
Senior captain Darion Graham was the star of the match, as he came up with 28 kills, including 12 in the final set. He was more important than ever in the match, as several Storm players were battling shoulder injuries.
“He’s been in our program a long time and was always a special player, but he has really blossomed this year a both a star player and a team leader,” Coach Pedro Davila said. “Because of injuries tonight, we were setting the ball to him on almost every play and he still carried us.”
The Storm (21-9), who entered regional play ranked 23rd in the state will be seeded seventh of eight teams for the championship. Celebration will meet second-ranked Winter Park at 4 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal game at Polk State College in Winter Haven. Winter Park (21-3) and the Storm met in the season-opener on Mar. 6, with the Wildcats winning in four sets.
Tuesday’s match with Horizon was a lot closer than the sweep indicated. Horizon came into the contest with a five-match winning streak – including a three-game road sweep of 2022 state-qualifier Tampa Bay HEAT in the regional semifinal.
In fact, it was so close that Celebration had to fight off set points in both the first and third sets. The first game went back-and-forth but Horizon used 5-0 run late in the game to take a 24-21 lead. But the Storm would rally behind two kills by Graham and Keith Harrison would serve out the game including an ace on the game-clinching point.
Trailing 11-10 in the second set, Celebration would go on runs of seven and three points to push the lead out to 20-12. Graham again led the way with seven kills in the game; while Harrison had two more aces and played spectacular defense in the back row – making numerous digs to thwart Horizon attacks.
The final set was a battle throughout.
Numerous lead changes and ties occurred, with neither team able to push any further ahead than three points. With the score tied 23-23, Graham’s spike attempt went wide – giving Horizon the first of two potential set points.
But Celebration would fight back to forge ties both times. After a ball handling error, Celebration had match-point at 27-26 but a block JP Candrian tied the game at 27-27. Graham’s 12th kill of the game gave the Storm another match point and this time Celebration was able to close the game out when Nelson Castellanos’ cross-court spike attempt went wide.
Candrian finished the game with 12 kills and two blocks for the Hawks; Jonathan Slattery added four kills and four blocks. Diego Rivera had six kills for the Storm.
“Make no mistake, Horizon is a very good team and this was a hard match for us,” Davila said. “If we don’t fight off those two set points, we could have been looking at a 2-1 deficit and playing for our lives in a fourth set.”
It will be Celebration’s fourth trip to the state finals but first since 2019. Although the Storm will be seeded seventh, Davila says his team will go into the tournament with confidence. “We have played three of the other seven teams in the state tournament this year. We have a win over Hialeah and even though the top seed (Southwest) beat us 3-0, all of those game were close and could have gone either way. It won’t be easy and there are many quality teams in the state, but we believe we are one of those.”
FHSAA STATE CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT
At Polk State College. Winter Haven, FL
FRIDAY, May 19
Game 1: #8 Hialeah vs. #1 Miami Southwest
Game 2: #5 Cypress Bay vs. #4 Kings Academy, 1 p.m.
Game 3: #7 Celebration vs. #2 Winter Park, 4 p.m.
Game 4: #6 Lake Howell vs. #3 Cardinal Gibbons, 7 p.m.
SATURDAY, May 20
Game 5: Winner 1 vs. Winner 2, 10 a.m.
Game 6: Winner 3 vs. Winner 4, 1 p.m.
FHSAA STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
Winner 5 vs. Winner 6 7 p.m.