Lambert wasn’t going down without a fight.
Besides, the Longhorns had been here before.
They managed to beat West Forsyth in the Area 6-7A semifinal earlier this season without Taylor Nelson. And against Hillgrove this week, Lambert played without three starters yet managed to sweep the match 3-0 and earn a spot in the Final Four.
After dropping the first two sets of Saturday’s Final Four match against Alpharetta, Lambert roared out to an 8-3 advantage in the third set, igniting the Longhorns’ comeback with a 25-18 win.
Lambert won seven of the first eight points in the fourth set to create a cushion and swing the momentum.
Gillian Mathauer, Sarah Black and Molly Kate Patten logged consecutive kills to inch Lambert out to a 3-0 lead, then after a pair of kills from Taylor Nelson, Alpharetta made a couple of unforced errors to give the Longhorns control.
From there, Lambert cruised to a 25-14 win to force the fifth-set tiebreaker.
The two teams played even through the first six points in the fifth set, but Amanda Kilkelly logged a powerful kill to make it 4-3, then added an ace on the following point to complete the two-point swing.
A block and a kill from Logan Wiley engineered a four-point Alpharetta run that the Raiders used to bury Lambert 15-9, taking the match 3-2 and advancing to the Class 7A state championship against Walton.
“They are the most resilient, determined girls I’ve known,” Lambert head coach Missey Hall said. “They believed they could. We tried to work through piecing people in, which took a set. We had a lot of unforced errors in the first two sets, then they got comfortable. They always believed, but it felt like it showed. We had good performances from a lot of people; everybody contributed. It’s just an unfortunate situation, but I will never, ever make excuses, because they brought it against a very, very good team with a lot of obstacles against them.”
Lambert returned Sarah Black to the lineup after she missed the Longhorns’ match against Hillgrove because of COVID-19 protocol.
Black finished with six kills and gave Lambert some much-needed height at the net.
“It was a big boost. We needed some height. Dani was fantastic Tuesday, but you’ve got to have height against Alpharetta. You have to. They’ve got big bangers. They’ve got a lot of high-level club players, so we needed some height there. It was very good to have her back, and that was a gutsy performance by her.”
Bella Tolone finished with a team-high 18 kills, adding 22 assists, nine digs and a pair of aces.
Tolone split the setting duties with Nithilaa Karthikeyan once against as the team was without setter Megan Martin as well as outside hitter Ella Beyer. Karthikeyan led the team with 24 assists and chipped in a pair of aces.
“It breaks my heart, because I’ve got two girls at home with negative COVID tests – negative. But that’s the rules,” Hall said. “That’s the parameters you have to go by. It’s just, I feel bad for them.
“I felt like I’ve held my breath since August. I really have.”
According to the Georgia High School Association’s COVID-19 protocols, student-athletes who test positive for the virus must quarantine at least 10 days after testing positive.
Taylor Nelson had 12 kills, 13 digs and a block, while Molly Kate Patten led the Longhorns with three blocks and six kills.
Miranda Hardin tallied an impressive 21 digs and Clarisse Evangelista added five digs.
Lambert (29-4), reached the Final Four for the first time since 2016, will lose nine seniors to graduation, including Black, Evangelista, Hardin, Martin, Tolone, Rojina Jafari, Nidhisha Kancharla, Savannah Lockert and Ashley York.
“I look at these girls and just think about how they’ve been with us since junior Longhorns,” Hall said. “I’ve watched these girls grow up and grow into such strong, resilient girls who support each other. This hurts. This is a tough one. I think we could have made some noise. A healthy team, I think we could have made some noise, because we were really playing well. But I love them and I will be there for them forever. I hope they know that.”