BY BRIAN HAMILTON
GATLINBURG – The Lady Highlanders rallied from an 11-9 deficit in the fifth frame to hold off a pesky North Greene team after taking a commanding 2-0 lead in the first two sets.
After giving up sets three and four and trailing in the fifth, Steffi Johnson was able to hit the winning shot across, which was unable to be returned, giving Gatlinburg-Pittman the fifth set 15-13 and the match 3-2.
“I think my team loves to give the crowd and the coaching staff a heart attack every game that we play, so why make it different in the state tournament, where the season is on the line,” Gatlinburg-Pittman head coach Hagen Sims said. “They beat us both times in the regular season and they are a very good program. I think this is the first time we played them with their full roster.”
The regional semifinal match was actually the first time Gatlinburg-Pittman had won a set over North Greene in 2022, as the Lady Huskies swept GP 3-0 in both matches in the regular season.
Set 1: Gatlinburg-Pittman, 25 North Greene, 12
Gatlinburg-Pittman jumped out to an early 6-4 lead in the first set, which ballooned to an 8-5 lead and then to 11-5 after a Rylee Ownby block. The Lady Highlanders then jumped out to a 23-11 lead that forced a North Greene timeout. Gatlinburg-Pittman would come out of the break, however, and come away with a 25-12.
Set 2: Gatlinburg-Pittman, 25 North Greene, 13
The Lady Highlanders continued their dominance in the second set, taking an early 4-0 lead. Gatlinburg-Pittman went ahead 13-5 when North Greene hit one out of play.
The Lady Huskies then went on a 4-0 run to pull to within 13-9 and later spiked one to make the lead 16-12.
Gatlinburg-Pittman would end the set on a 9-1 run, however, as the Lady Highlanders took the second set 25-13 and held a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
“We focused more on our ball control and just trying to place the ball and get the ball over and whatever happens, happens,” Sims said. “We tried to take the game into our own hands, and I think early in the season, the first few times we saw them, we just reacted to them and let them set the tone.”
Set 3: North Greene, 25 Gatlinburg-Pittman, 22
The third set was close throughout, as North Greene took an early 5-4 lead when Natalie Velazquez hit one into the net for a Lady Husky point.
North Greene led 11-9, but Gatlinburg-Pittman was able to knot the score at 11-11 and then took a 12-11 lead.
Steffi Johnson hit one over for a 13-12 GP lead, but the score was tied again at 13-13, as Johnson’s next serve didn’t make it over the net.
The score was tied at 15-15 when North Greene embarked on a 7-1 run to take a 22-16 lead, as the Lady Huskies attempted to stave off elimination.
Gatlinburg-Pittman then went on a run of its own, as Ownby got one over the net and off a North Greene player to pull to within 22-19.
The Lady Highlanders were able to cut the deficit to 24-22 late, but North Greene scored the set point to win 25-22 and avoid elimination.
Set 4: North Greene, 26 Gatlinburg-Pittman, 24
Gatlinburg-Pittman got off to an early 2-0 start in the fourth set, but North Greene then went on a 5-0 run to lead the Lady Highlanders 5-2.
The Lady Huskies took an 8-4 lead when the ball hit off Addi Wear and careened backwards, out of play. North Greene then led 9-4 when the ball hit out off of Kendl Reagan.
The lead grew to as much as 11-6, but Gatlinburg-Pittman was able to tie the score at 13-13 before taking a 14-13 lead, forcing a timeout by North Greene.
From that point, it looked like the Lady Highlanders had shifted momentum and taken control of the match, as Gatlinburg-Pittman’s lead grew to 23-19 late in the set.
The Lady Highlanders were one point away from taking the set and the match at 24-22 when North Greene tied the set at 24-24. The Lady Huskies ended the set on a 4-0 run, taking the fourth set 26-24 and preserving a fifth and deciding set.
“I think we wanted it and we just put pressure on ourselves, too much pressure, I guess you could say, rather than just playing,” Sims said. “I was very proud that we were able to hang on five whole sets. We haven’t made it to a fifth set yet.”
Set 5: Gatlinburg-Pittman, 15 North Greene, 13
North Greene took control of the fifth set early on, leading 3-1. Bree Hooper hit one into the net to push the Lady Huskies lead to 4-2 but GP was able to tie the game at 4-4.
The set remained close throughout, but it appeared North Greene was poised to take the set, as Gatlinburg-Pittman was unable to get the ball over the net, giving the Lady Huskies a 10-8 advantage.
“I told them, ‘If you want one more game, you’ve just got to buckle down right here and play smart. You can’t just go out and throw the ball over. You can’t kill it, but you have to score. You just have to play smart and focus on the ball,'” Sims said he told his team during a late timeout.
Gatlinburg-Pittman then made a late push, scoring three straight points to take a 12-11 lead. The Lady Highlanders had a chance to end the match up 14-12, but a lifting penalty gave North Greene a point to make the score 14-13 and give serve back to the Lady Huskies.
The Lady Highlanders finally escaped, however, as Steffi Johnson got one over the net that was unable to be returned, giving Gatlinburg-Pittman a hard fought 15-13 win and a 3-2 win in the match.
“We had a few good practices and came out ready to go and just wanted to extend our season a little longer,” Sims said.
The win advanced the Lady Highlanders to the regional final, where they would face the South Greene-Jellico winner and earned them a berth in the substate round.