The road to the Class AAAAA State Championship ran through Whitewater High School on Tuesday night. In an instant classic, the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers overcame an early deficit to dispel the Whitewater Lady Wildcats 3-2 in five sets.

Starr’s Mill advanced to face bitter rival, the McIntosh Lady Chiefs, in the state title game. The Battle of the Bubble Series will carry extra weight as the Chiefs hope to repeat as state champions. Starr’s Mill looks to win their first title under head coach Jason Flowers.

“It’s a big deal as I am one of the only seniors that have been here for four years,” Starr’s Mill senior Megan Lee said. “It’s what you play and practice for to beat McIntosh. We have never beaten McIntosh and I am looking forward to going to the championship and beating them.”

Starr’s Mill journey didn’t come without a few bumps in the road. Adversity made a grand entrance after the Panthers fell behind 2-0 against the Wildcats. In enemy territory, the deck was stacked as they stared in the face of elimination.

A spark was needed and Flowers knew it. So, he met with the team and implored them to take it one play at a time. He told his players to not play scared and grab every point possible.

“I kept telling them that our best is better than their best,” Flowers said. “If we play our best, we don’t have to worry about things and the results will come.”

Flowers also took a page out of Nick Saban’s playbook. The University of Alabama head coach turned to a freshman phenom and Flowers did the same. He pulled freshman and Georgia Tech commit Nicole Smith to the side and put the game in her hands.

“I told Nicole during the middle of the fourth set, I don’t know how or what it is going to be, but you are going to be the reason we win this match,” Flowers said.

Nicole Smith leads comeback against Whitewater. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn)

The bold strategy worked. Smith led a miraculous comeback against Whitewater and engineered the offense with 12 kills, 3 aces, 7 digs and 7 blocks. The outburst energized the Panthers as they took set three 25-23 and set four 25-16.

Smith primarily worked against Wildcats senior Carrington Terrell. Both players have history playing against each other in club volleyball. Terrell bested Smith early, but the talented freshman recognized a trend in Terrell’s game.

Smith timed out Terrell’s high swing and countered kill attempts. She turned it into block shots and easy offensive points.

“I was all in this match and I was so excited,” Smith said. “After the first two sets, I thought we may not get this (game). But, we gave all our hearts in the final sets. I knew I needed to show up and dominate the sport.”

Smith’s rising confidence rubbed off her teammates. The Panthers started to play fast and get Whitewater out of their rotations. Lee led with 22 kills and 20 digs. Juniors Lili Ryan and Kayla Sloan added 15 and 11 kills respectively. Tessa Laney added 23 digs and Georgia Waller chipped with 20 digs as well.

“We told them to don’t let up,” Flowers said. “I said don’t play scared, hit hard and let them know that we are here. Just keep going.”

In the decisive fifth set, both teams left it all on the floor. Starr’s Mill jumped out to a 6-4 advantage behind Smith’s two kills down the line. Whitewater tried to respond with junior Destinee Langston adding points off serves.

However, Whitewater was hampered with turnovers down the stretch. A wayward serve crashed into the net and couple serves went out of bounds. Starr’s Mill took advantage and opened a 9-4 lead to force a timeout.

“They got us out of our system,” Whitewater assistant coach Deidra Bohannon said. “We had a game plan going into it and Starr’s Mill worked really hard to overcome the system we had in place. Ours girls held their own, but we just couldn’t outscore them.”

After the timeout, Starr’s Mill went on a 6-3 run to end the game. Smith closed it out with a block at the net to set up an All-Fayette County state championship game.

“It’s a really amazing feeling,” Smith said. “Grace (Ramkisson) and I were the two freshmen and this whole year we have been trying to prove ourselves to the team. We have been getting up this entire season and it’s amazing.”

Destinee Langston attempts shot over net in third set against Starr’s Mill. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn)

Whitewater fell to 33-20 and now heads into the offseason. Head coach Sandi Stein was proud of her team as they battled back to make the Final Four. She believes that her team will be right back in the position next season.

“We have come a long way,” Stein said. “We were 7-0 in the beginning and went 3-13. So, to get to where we are now is quite an accomplishment.”

Langston returns in her senior season along with JoJo Venza and Candace Walker. The Wildcats will have to replace five players and get back to fundamentals in practice.

Starr’s Mill turns their attention to McIntosh. Both teams played close battles all season and Flowers said the team grew as a unit after facing the Chiefs. He believes the Panthers have a shot to pull it out.

“The only thing that I wish was different was that we could play it here and get the whole crowd and town involved,” Flowers said. “I hope we travel well because I know that they will. It’s exciting to see what we can do.”

To see more photos from the match, click [btn type=”default or primary or success or info or warning or danger or link” link=””]here[/btn].