The title celebration that the Gators could see themselves in suddenly was gone in a 25-23, 28-26, 22-25, 22-25, 15-13 loss to the Lancers in the CIF Division IV state championship match on Saturday at Concordia University in Irvine.
Francis Parker (37-2) won its first state crown in seven years and the seventh in program history while Sacred Heart Prep (33-6) was runner-up for the second time in three years.
The Gators appeared prime to win it after Francis Parker made a hitting error to give SHP an 11-8 lead in the final set. After a timeout, the Lancers came out and scored three straight points to tie. A serving error gave the lead (12-11) and ball back to SHP, but the Lancers' Michaela Dews produced her 19th kill to tie at 12. Francis Parker served an ace and Dews made it 20 kills for a 14-12 advantage.
After SHP senior Payton Smith came up with her 11th kill (she also had five blocks), Lancers' setter Erika Conners got one through the SHP defense for the deciding point.
SHP senior Jillian Geary had scored three straight points to give her team an 8-5 lead, but errors led to an 8-8 tie. Geary later received the "Pursuing Victory With Honor" sportsmanship award, an honor given to each team.
Ellie Shannon, one of nine SHP seniors, helped rally the Gators from a 21-17 deficit in the fourth set with three kills before fellow senior Helen Gannon served back-to-back aces for the victory -- forcing the fifth and deciding set.
Shannon finished with 17 kills and Smith added 14. Along with Gannon (26 digs) and Geary, the other SHP seniors bowing out in their final match included Sonia Abuel-Saud, Cammie Merten, Cady Hellman, Jojo Kurtzman and Haley Cropper. Merten finished with 47 assists and 18 digs in her final match and Abuel-Saud contributed 10 kills and 22 digs.
SHP coach Damien Hardy will return only one starter next season in current sophomore Victoria Garrick, who produced 16 kills and 19 digs in the championship match that saw the Gators hit .264 as a team.
Sacred Heart Prep came into the finals ranked No. 1 in the state in Division IV by the Freeman rankings on MaxPreps. The Gators were No. 9 in the state overall and No. 38 in the nation.
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