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TAMPA - With a spot in the Class 3A state semifinals on the line, there was no denying Berkeley Prep. And no answer for Janet Okogbaa.
Behind Okogbaa's match-high 23 kills and outstanding play from many of her teammates, the Bucs stopped Fort Myers Bishop Verot 25-17, 25-21, 19-25, 25-18 on Thursday night to earn a trip to next week's final four in Lakeland. Berkeley (21-9) is aiming for its 13th state championship under longtime coach Randy Dagostino, the most recent coming in 2003.
"It feels really nice," Okogbaa said. "We all worked so hard and we had some bumps along the way that we had to overcome."
Berkeley was at its best in crunch time. In the final game, the Bucs were nothing short of brilliant. Players made diving digs and crisp passes, and the sets of Kate Parker, many of which went to Okogbaa, were consistently on the money.
The athletic Okogbaa, a Stanford recruit, had eight kills in the game, including four in a five-point span during one dominating stretch. As the match drew to a close, her spikes seemed to grow in intensity, and each one was like another kick to Bishop Verot's stomach.
"Janet was absolutely on fire," Parker said.
Her teammates weren't too shabby either. Every Buc who played contributed.
And Berkeley needed it.
Parker, who finished with 43 assists, was sensational at running the offense (and on more than one occasion, she burned Bishop Verot with precise, well-timed dump shots). Middle blockers Courtney Cohen (13 kills) and Jordan Dickie controlled the net. Outside hitters Briana Mayhew and Hilary Hunt had several key shots. The list goes on.
To its credit, Bishop Verot battled hard from the start, and despite losing the opening games, it never let up. In the third, the Vikings (24-4) gained control early thanks largely to the play of outside hitter Emma Racila. Bishop Verot answered every Berkeley shot, it seemed, with a better one to keep the match alive.
During the break before the fourth, Dagostino offered his team some encouragement. "I didn't think we played that badly," he said. "I just told them to suck it up and get back out there."
Within minutes, the Bucs had advanced.
"It's incredibly rewarding," Parker said. "Especially for our seniors. When you see the look on their faces, you can see how badly they want it."
BAYSHORE CHRISTIAN: Region final, 2 p.m. Saturday, vs. Lake Worth Trinity Christian