After dropping two of its first three sets against the visiting La Plata High School volleyball team on Wednesday afternoon, the Patuxent volleyball squad had no more margin for error if the Panthers were going to have any chance of unseating the Warriors as Class 2A South Region champions.

While the first three sets had been virtual nail-biters, Patuxent completely reversed the course of the 2A South Section II final match by dominating the early portions of both the fourth and fifth sets.

Considering the Panthers had never led by more than four points in any of the first three sets, their 15-4 lead in the fourth and 8-2 advantage to start the deciding set were surprisingly decisive and propelled the hosts to the region final, prevailing in five sets by scores of 23-25, 25-23, 22-25, 25-13 and 15-12.

“Really the main difference was playing with more energy,” Patuxent senior setter Alex Heist said. “We just stayed up that whole fourth game. Getting the big early lead that game and the fifth game really helped. When it was 8-2 in the fifth set we felt pretty good, but they came back to make it a lot closer than we wanted.”

Patuxent (13-3 overall), which had won the regular season meeting between the two squads in five sets, had its only hopes of success hinging entirely on the fourth set. While the two teams had been virtually inseparable through the first three sets, Patuxent cruised to a 25-13 victory in the fourth set and then withstood a late surge by La Plata to take the fifth, 15-12, earning the Panthers a berth in Friday’s 2A South Region final at Glenelg of Howard County. A time was not known at press time.

“In those last two sets our girls just did a great job passing and serving,” Patuxent head coach Kevin Keller said. “Our serve-receive and our serving were inconsistent the first three games, but those last two sets the girls really executed well. It just seemed to take them a while to get going.”

La Plata (13-4) had rallied from an early 16-12 deficit to take the opening set, 25-23, but Patuxent responded by winning the second set by the same score. The Panthers owned a 20-16 lead late then just outlasted the late surge of the Warriors when Heist recorded a kill on a tap then set senior Kayleigh Murphy for a kill to end it.

La Plata won the pivotal third set, 25-22, as it vaulted to a 10-3 lead behind a service run from senior setter Ava Krahling then extended the lead to 14-6 with junior outside hitter Jayci Chamberlain serving. Patuxent, however, hardly wilted after those runs and the Panthers eventually rallied to draw even at 20 behind a long service run from sophomore outside hitter Jasmin Johnson.

La Plata, however, withstood the late Panthers surge and took the third set, 25-22, with junior middle Megan Schueller recording an ace on one serve and then Krahling set Chamberlain for set point.

The Warriors owned a 2-1 lead in the match and appeared to have all of the momentum moving forward, but the Panthers had an immediate response in the fourth set and La Plata’s reign as defending region champions would be short-lived.

Patuxent broke open a close fourth set when libero Emma Poteet reeled off eight straight winners, including a pair of aces, for a 15-4 lead. Poteet’s second ace told the underlying story of the match. In the fourth and fifth sets, La Plata defenders appeared flat-footed and on one Poteet serve that was destined to sail deep, Warriors senior libero Alyssa Gayon stumbled while backpedaling and the ball caught her on the shoulder and landed harmlessly at her feet.

Patuxent cruised to a 25-13 victory in the fourth set then started the fifth set with continued, sustained momentum.

Another service run from Johnson lifted the Panthers to an 8-2 lead and another from southpaw Alyssa Eells extended the advantage to 12-5, then Heist set Johnson to bring the hosts to match point at 14-9. But this time La Plata had one last surge remaining.

A Johnson attack error kept the Warriors alive and Gayon recorded a service ace then another winner when Krahling set Chamberlain for a kill to bring the visitors within 14-12, prompting Keller to use his final timeout.

Following another Gayon serve and brief volley, Heist set Johnson for a kill off a La Plata block for match point, prolonging the Panthers’ season for at least another two days while ending the Warriors’ campaign at that moment.

“That fourth set we just lost our focus and started playing a lot more tentative,” La Plata head coach Ashley Buchanan said. “We stopped attacking and started tipping. After that fourth set, I told the girls to just regroup and move on. But the momentum carried over into the fifth set for them. We waited until it was too late to start playing with any sense of urgency.”

Friday’s region final match at Glenelg and potential appearance in the 2A state semifinals at the University of Maryland in College Park on Tuesday proved doubly meaningful for Murphy. She was a freshman three years ago when the Panthers won the region title then lost the state title match and spent the previous two seasons as the Panthers’ setter before yielding that role to Heist this fall.

“I just want to be able to walk in the gym and see a [state championship] banner on the wall before I graduate,” Murphy said. “I’m so excited to be playing in a region championship match. I can’t wait.”

While Murphy, Heist and their Panthers teammates departed the gym beaming, Chamberlain somberly made the short walk to the team bus while repeatedly wiping tears from her face.

“I feel bad for the seniors,” Chamberlain said. “I loved playing with those girls. They played with so much heart. We’re going to have to rebuild now. We’re losing a lot of heart. That’s going to be tough to replace.”

Twitter: @tblacksomds1

Twitter: tblacksomds1