AVON PARK - The highly anticipated rematch between district rivals Avon Park and Lake Placid lived up to the billing.
But once again, the Dragons soared to victory, this time in the Red Devils gym, winning Tuesday night's match by scores of 25-18, 25-19, 24-26 and 25-14.
The win improved Lake Placid to 16-4 overall and a perfect 7-0 in Class 4A-District 9 matches, while Avon Park dropped to 9-4 and 6-2.
"My hitters were on, we were digging balls, and we were scrappy," said Lake Placid coach Charlotte Bauder. "And that's what it's going to take to win in districts."
The first set was the evening's best, as the Dragons and Devils battled through a grueling opener that saw three lead changes and six ties.
Lake Placid opened with a 1-0 lead, but the two teams pounded each other to a 7-7 standstill. With Mary Grace Bates serving for the Dragons, Lake Placid managed to take a slight lead, but the Devils clawed their way back to tie it at 10. Trailing 15-14, Avon Park's Marina Torres hammered a kill shot to tie the set again, but boosted by their defense, the Dragons went on a spirited run to take a 20-16 lead.
With Lake Placid fans filling the gym with raucous cheers, Breauna Corley pounded back-to-back kills to guide the Dragons to an opening set win.
In the second set, Lake Placid got off to a fast start, taking an early 4-0 lead. Avon Park battled to tie it at eight apiece, but a handful of Dragons aces from Jacalyn Baldwin and Bates coupled with defensive mistakes from Avon Park helped Lake Placid take an 19-11 advantage. A Red Devils time out let the team regroup, and they went on a 8-3 run to get back into the set.
But just as they've done all season long for Lake Placid, Bella Carabello and Baldwin reemerged when the Dragons needed them most, swatting back-to-back kill shots to clinch the set 25-19.
Avon Park wouldn't be denied in the third set, overcoming 10 ties to avoid the sweep.
Knotted at 24, Avon Park's Brianna Roque pounded the ball to a rare open spot on the Dragons side of the floor to take a one point lead. A strong defensive stand followed, and the Devils were able to hold on for the win.
"I firmly believe, that when we get a third hit, we beat them," Avon Park coach Shane Wirries said. "Hit for hit, we were with them. But we can't pass the ball to them. Lake Placid hits it every time; we can't give anything to them."
In the final set, Lake Placid jumped out to a 10-6 lead thanks to a handful of communication errors from Avon Park.
Leading 17-10, the Dragons rode a hard-fought 4-0 run to put the set out of reach. The Devils scored a few points late, but the four-point hole was too much to overcome.
With the Class 4A-District 9 tournament in two weeks at McKeel Academy in Lakeland, it's not unlikely that the top-seeded Dragons and Devils will meet again. There's still a lot a stake left for both teams.
"We've had our hiccups in districts," Bauder said. "But with this talent, we're very capable of winning districts. And we've got our eye on regionals."
Wirries issued a similar sentiment.
"Winning a district championship would mean so much," he said. "For me and the girls. And I think it'd be a first for the program."
Lake Placid and Avon Park are locked in as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds for the upcoming district tournament. The Dragons have one more one more district opponent left, a road match tonight at 7:30 against Mulberry.
If the Dragons knock off the Panthers, they'll secure the No. 1 seed and a bye in the district tournament.