Zaelea Eller’s set hung in the air, and the moment Polk County had long worked for awaited.
The moment for which they played travel ball all spring. The moment for which they went to camps and workouts in the summer. The moment that had been the Wolverines’ singular goal since the start of practice on July 31.
The moment awaited.
And then Eller’s set hung in the air no more, pounded by Morgan Yoder off a Falls Lake Academy defender and to the floor of Reynolds Coliseum.
And the moment was all theirs.
Polk County earned the first state volleyball championship in school history with a dominant 25-19, 25-22, 25-22 win Saturday evening, defeating a Falls Lake program that had won the first title match between the two schools five years earlier.
Order a new sign for the school entranceway. Get one more for the wall in the gymnasium, too. Make some room in the trophy case.
Polk County has a new state champion to celebrate.
“This has been a goal of ours for years,” said head coach Molly Hill, whose team finished 28-3. “We knew that this was going to be a good potential year for us, and the way that we have played, especially in the postseason, we knew we could do this.
“We were confident in that and I think that really showed tonight, just our confidence overall and how we came together as a team and how we battled for every point every game. I couldn’t be more proud of all my girls.”
Falls Lake (26-4) entered with a roster filled with sophomores and just one senior, and that youth clearly translated to nerves, especially in an opening set in which the Firebirds committed seven service errors.
But Falls Lake players and coaches also admitted they hadn’t faced a defense like Polk County’s, its dig-or-die mindset routintely returning shots that Firebird players expected to win points.
“We just couldn’t control the pace, couldn’t find a way to shut down the middle,” said Falls Lake head coach Corrinna Simmons. “We just couldn’t make that happen. Kudos to them. We have not played anyone that has forced us like that.
“So when you don’t get those touches and you don’t expect it, you’re not ready to rebound off of it as quickly and it takes longer to adjust.”
“The defense was a lot better than what we’ve usually seen throughout the season,” said Falls Lake’s Kate DeZurik. “And we didn’t do a great job of finding where they weren’t. We were hitting a lot of shots straight to them.”
“I feel like we’re known for having a killer defense,” Hill said. “The girls go get it, it’s dig or die, every ball matters. We really read the ball well and watched what they were doing. On the net and on the back line, everyone was on.”
Down two sets, the Firebirds made their last stand in the third set, fighting back from a 9-4 deficit and taking an 18-16 lead on a Montana Preddy kill. At that point, Hill called a timeout, reminded the Wolverines that their only losses this season were to conference rival Brevard, who just happened to win the state 2A championship earlier in the afternoon, and that they were just as much worthy of a title as the Blue Devils.
Falls Lake pushed the lead to 21-18, but back charged the Wolverines. Yoder scored on a tip, then blocked a Falls Lake shot for another point. A Firebird error and a Yoder kill gave Polk a 22-21 lead and led Simmons to call a timeout.
Mia Bradley served an ace out of the timeout to make it 23-21, but an error returned serve to Falls Lake. It didn’t matter – Yoder smashed a kill to deliver championship point, then sent home the game-winner to set off a delirious Polk County celebration.
“It’s such a surreal moment,” said Polk senior Ada Kelley. “Last year we were so close, but didn’t quite get it. This year, it’s like our dream’s finally come true. We all pulled together, and I think this team has been the closest team I’ve ever been with.”
“In the playoffs, if we lose, we’re done,” said senior Elena Carroll. “So we had to play to our fullest potential the whole time. I’ve wanted to win a state championship so bad, and for it to finally come true is really special.”
The Wolverines inched to a 12-7 lead in the first set, built a six-point cushion and never let the margin drop below three. The second set was much closer until Polk pulled ahead 19-14, only see the Firebirds score five straight points to make it 19-19.
The score moved to 20-20, 21-21 and 22-22 before a Yoder kill and Falls Lake error set up a crucial set point, which Sophia Overholt drilled to give the Wolverines a 2-0 lead.
That would lead to the third-set drama and a joyous postgame celebration that included Overholt being named the Most Valuable Player of the state final. As she said earlier in the week, it was her time to join older sisters Mariah and Olivia and older brother Dillion in winning a state championship, and that she did.
“Last season we were so close, and we knew we didn’t want that to happen again,” Overholt said. “We just had to come together and be one, you can’t play individually. So we came together, rose to the occasion and got the job done.”