Viera reaches regional finals for first time ever after rallying past Lakeland in five-set thriller

Viera High senior Kelly Merz (No. 2) and her teammates react moments after coming back from a 2-1 deficit to defeat Lakeland 3-2 in the Class 6A regional semifinal. The win puts Viera into Saturday's regional final for the first time in program history.

LAKELAND – They have always had the potential to do something big.

And Wednesday night, on the road and trailing two sets to one, that’s just what the Viera High volleyball team did.

The Hawks pulled off something big.

With every player on the court coming up big at one time or another, third-seeded Viera rallied past No. 2 Lakeland 25-19, 24-26, 18-25, 25-14, 15-13 in the Class 6A regional semifinals Wednesday night.

The win puts Viera (16-9) into Saturday’s regional final against top-seeded host New Smyrna Beach (22-6). The match is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m.

“I’m so proud of them for them to see all of their goals come to fruition,” Viera coach Sarah Wayne said. “And that’s all that I want for this team. That’s all I want for these young ladies.

“They work hard enough, and then to be able to see the reward at the end of that hard work, and how it pays off, that’s why we coach.”

Viera, which won the second district title in program history last month, had never won a regional playoff game before, much less come within one more victory of reaching the state final four.

“Our program has worked so hard to get to this point, all the girls that came before us,” senior libero Hannah Bradford said. “This group, we’re just … we’re so bonded. We’re so close with each other that on the court we can just support each other so much and get to this point.”

Junior Mak Carter led Viera with 16 kills, one ace, seven digs and five total blocks. Junior Sydney Williams had 10 kills, one ace, 14 digs and two total blocks. Freshman Haley Beigh had nine kills to go with two total blocks.

Sophomore Mallory Merz had 37 assists, three kills, two aces, seven digs and three total blocks. Bradford had 13 digs, two assists and two aces. Senior Kelly Merz had five aces and five digs.

Sophomore Kasey Morgan had three kills, five aces and five digs. Senior Angie Durso had two kills, three digs and three total blocks. Senior Hannah Carpenter had four digs.

Viera had won nine straight sets prior to Wednesday’s regional semifinal, but Lakeland (22-7) -- which played phenomenal defense throughout the night – had the Hawks on the brink of elimination.

“They’re a great team, probably one of the best teams we’ve faced all year,” Bradford said. “It was an incredibly fun game. They have really talented players. It’s an honor to play against teams like that.

“… I think we had some trouble adjusting to what they were doing at first, but Coach Wayne kind of rallied us together and told us our game plan off what we were going to do. Kelly and Mallory both really stepped up, picking up the tips, and so did Kasey and Sydney.”

It was certainly a back-and-forth night for both teams – Carter called it a “roller coaster” as the momentum changed between the Hawks and Dreadnaughts throughout the contest.

Viera took the first set 25-19 and had a chance to take the second set, leading 15-11 and 21-19. But Lakeland came back to tie things up at 22-22 and then finally pushed past the Hawks to take the set 26-24.

The Dreadnaughts charged out to an early lead in the third set and pulled away for a 25-18 victory that put Lakeland up 2-1 and had the Hawks on the verge of seeing their dream season come to an end as the fourth set began.

“I think we all just had the mindset of this is either going to be our last game, or we’re going to go on and win this, so we have to give everything we have on the court at all times this game,” Bradford said.

Wayne said she told her players to stay calm, but be determined and focused and to believe that they can score points.

Mack also gave credit to assistant coach Diego Perez for helping the team turn things around.

“We say this all the time -- our big struggle is being in our heads and not being able to finish,” Carter said. “Tonight, during that second and third set, we were in our heads a little bit and our energy wasn’t there.

“But as soon as Coach Diego said, ‘Let’s go! You guys are in your heads. We play so much better when we’re having fun …’ That kind of flipped the switch for us and we were back. It’s us. It’s Viera.”

It was a close set early on, with neither team able to pull away by more than point. With Lakeland leading 8-7, Bradford dove to the floor and somehow managed to get a hand on the ball, keeping it alive. Viera would go on to win the point.

“Hannah is such an amazing player – both Hannahs (Bradford and Carpenter) are,” Carter said. “But without our libero, Hannah Bradford, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Viera led 15-13 in a tight fourth set when the Hawks suddenly got rolling, ripping off 10 of the next 11 points to force a fifth and deciding set.

The Dreadnaughts would move out to a 10-8 lead, but once again, Viera reeled off six straight points to take command and then won the match on a net violation by Lakeland to touch off a huge celebration by the Hawks and their fans.

“It was a very close game,” Bradford said. “We had moments of ups and downs, but overall, I’m just so happy to pull out the win.”

And in a season of firsts – first district title in 10 years, first-ever wins in the regional quarterfinals and semifinals – the Hawks have a chance to pull off one more on Saturday.

Once again, it’s going to take great performances, not just from one player, but from everyone to get it done.

But that’s how this team is built.

“We had to all play well,” Wayne said. “I even think there’s more to us. We’re going to go back and we’re going to practice and we’re going to get ready for New Smyrna, which is a great team.

“We struggled (at times tonight), but where we struggled, our teammates picked us up. The bench picked us up. They just figured out a way to side out and figured out a way to score.”