For most of the first set, Warhill High hitter Cori Clifton turned the 3A East Region volleyball tournament championship game into her personal playground. Clifton, a 6-foot-1 Gatorade State Player of the Year candidate and Georgia Tech signee, had four kills in addition to the Lions scoring six consecutive points on her serve to turn the set into a rout.
And then she was gone. Apparently straining an Achilles tendon as her foot stuck to the floor when she dove for a ball, Clifton exited the match in pain late in the first set never to return.
As the ice melted in the bag on her foot, so did the Lions hopes of a fourth consecutive regional title. The Lions won the first set 25-10, but Tabb won the next three 25-22, 25-21, 25-16 to secure the first regional title in volleyball program history.
The victory sent the Tigers players, and the loyal cadre of fans who have followed them throughout their improbable three-victory run to the regional title this week, into ecstasy. Tabb players and coaches graciously acknowledged the break they received, but were justifiably proud of pulling through against a determined effort by the Lions.
"Cori is one of the best players, if not the best player, in the (Bay Rivers) district," Tabb setter Abigail Carney said. "When she went out we felt bad, but we knew we had to take advantage of it.
"It hit us that it was our time."
That time came during a stretch of eight consecutive points in the second set, during which the Tigers rallied from a five-point deficit into a 20-17 lead. Carney had four kills during that surge, before Lainey Arneson came up with another big one as the Tigers evened the match at a set apiece.
Warhill took a 19-13 lead in the third set and the solid net play of Alexis Pollard and Chloe Wilmoth was key. But Tabb used another eight-point run to move into the lead, this time with Audre'ana Ellis and Gabby Gardner combining for five kills while Ashley Muhich served two aces.
Arneson's put away at the net gave the Tigers a 2-1 sets lead. Their fans began chanting "I believe that we can win," and their coach, Mike Honeycutt, picked up on the theme by imploring them to "believe that every ball is yours."
"We knew they still had (Wilmoth) blocking and hitting, but we all came together," Ellis said. "We knew the only way we could win was to stay together all the way."
Everyone played well for the Tigers in the final set. Muhich was great defensively, Carney was on point with her passing and hitting, and Arneson got hot down the stretch with five points at the net.
The Tigers raucous celebrations were tempered with humility. Thrilled by the win, they understood the story might have been different against a Warhill team that swept them 3-0 twice during the regular season with Clifton at the net.
"She's amazing and they feed off of her leadership," Honeycutt said. "She's 6-1, left handed and hits over every block, so we don't have a girl to match her.
"You never wish ill and we hope she makes it back because that will get them to the state final. But our girls were able to capitalize because of an amazing team effort."
Ellis said, "I don't even have the words to describe this. We made (school) history and it's overwhelming."
Tabb will host its Group 3A state semifinal on Tuesday against the 3A West Region runner-up, while two-time defending 3A state champion Warhill plays at the 3A West champion. Warhill coach Greg Koon thinks Clifton will be in uniform.
"She probably could've came back in tonight, but it wasn't really worth it," Koon said, pointing to the bigger picture of attempting a state championship three-peat next week.
TABB d. WARHILL 3-1 (10-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-16)
Standouts — Warhill, Wilmoth (12 kills, 13 digs, 19 assists, 4 aces, 4 blocks), Pollard (13 kills, 9 digs, 3 blocks, 2 aces); Tabb, Carney (18 assists, 7 kills, 8 digs), Muhich (12 digs, 3 aces), Turner (8 assists, 3 kills, 6 digs). Records — Warhill 21-7, Tabb 14-14.
2A East semifinal: R.E. Lee of Staunton defeated Bruton 17-25, 25-20, 13-25, 30-28, 15-7
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.