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Caleb Turrentine / The Herald Elmore County’s Katie Pollard (3) gets an uncontested shot at the net.

After seeing Holtville sweep Handley in straight sets, Elmore County got the matchup it wanted in the Class 4A Area 5 championship but it knew it would not be easy. The Panthers wanted revenge after being swept by the Bulldogs earlier in the season but the nerves were high to start the match and Holtville took advantage of that, jumping out to a 5-1 lead in the opening set.

However, Elmore County found its groove and never looked back on its way to a 25-17, 25-22, 25-10 victory. The win clinched the Panthers’ 10th straight area championship as they have not lost a match in area tournament play since 2009.

“This is an incredible feeling,” ECHS coach Kim Moncrief said. “I actually had tears (Monday night) and I think that’s the first time I’ve shed some tears. They have worked really hard and we’ve had a lot to overcome this year. They were so nervous coming in and the pressure builds every year so I’m just proud of this team.”

The Panthers responded well in the first set, quickly taking the lead back before the teams traded serves for 15 straight points. Elmore County grabbed the final five points of the set behind two kills from Katie Pollard and an ace from Mirriam Foster.

“I knew their hitters were going to be warmed up and I knew that could be an advantage but that also means they could tire out a little bit,” Moncrief said. “We were hoping if we could win the first, we felt like we could use that to our advantage. It’s tough to play six sets back to back.”

Holtville knew it may not be in it for the long haul but the Bulldogs put all their effort into the second set, jumping out to another quick lead. They did not give it up as easily this time and held a 22-20 lead, forcing Moncrief to use her second timeout of the set.

“It’s just an emotional roller coaster and that takes so much out of you,” Holtville coach Alison Franklin said. “When you play them, that’s exactly how it is but I’m still very proud about how we handled everything today.”

After the timeout, the Panthers reeled off five consecutive points again to finish the set and cut off any hope the Bulldogs had of ending the title streak. Elmore County eased to victory in the third set to claim the championship and the region’s top seed at Thursday’s super regional.

“I feel like that put the cap on it when we were able to pull out from that 22-20 deficit,” Moncrief said. “That was a game changer for us. It boost our confidence and I think it may have hurt theirs a little bit too which made the third set easier for us.”

Foster led the Panthers with 10 kills and added six aces on 16 successful serves. Kelley Green added nine kills while Katie Pollard finished with eight. Madison Britt was a perfect 6-for-6 on swings.

“We try to mix is up a good bit,” Moncrief said. “We did some plays (Monday) that Holtville had not seen before so that helped too. Even in a situation when one hitter isn’t on, the others can pick it up.”

Elmore County will continue its season this week at the Multiplex at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery on Thursday. The Panthers are slated to play LAMP as they hope for more success at super regional than they had last season.

Despite the loss in the championship match, Holtville is focusing on the positives as it has earned a spot in Montgomery for the second consecutive year. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs are dealing with an already long week and they may have to shake off some distractions to prepare for Thursday’s match against Montgomery Catholic.

“We have to refocus the team back into priorities,” Franklin said. “It’s homecoming week but at the end of the day, volleyball is No. 1 and I think they know that. At this point, we’re playing good volleyball so we just have to refocus.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.