LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The only goal for the Lakewood Ranch volleyball team was to reach the region final.
Anything less would have been a disappointing season.
The Mustangs have become a stronger team the deeper they've gone into the playoffs and on Tuesday night the host Mustangs showed their dominance in sweeping Tampa Sickles 25-16, 25-11 and 25-17 in the Class 6A-Region 3 semifinal.
And so Lakewood Ranch is back in the region final for the second straight year. But there is a difference. This time, the Mustangs (22-5) will not be awed by the experience.
The Mustangs will travel to Winter Haven at 2 p.m. Saturday with the winner qualifying for the state tournament. In its semifinal match, Winter Haven defeated Tarpon Springs, which ousted Lakewood Ranch in the region final last year.
"We've put in a lot of hours this year and have really been focusing on just growing as a team and making our game stronger than who we come up against," senior Mariah Robertson said. "So we are focusing on what we are doing and if we do what we are doing right, then everything else falls into place. Tonight we had a lot of enthusiasm and energy.
"We've been thinking about the regional final since last year. Our goal has been to get there, and we've put a lot of hours into that. We are peaking at the right time. It's exciting."
Robertson focused on everything
she needed to do against Sickles (16-13), banging out eight kills with 12 digs. Lakewood Ranch's other top hitter, sophomore Ashlyn Falahee, came up with nine kills and two aces.
"We went through homecoming week (last week) and got a little funky and worked through things. Teams are getting better so we are rising to the challenge," Lakewood Ranch head coach Perri Hankins.
"Ali (Milbourn) set very well. She was moving well and getting to the ball, and her sets were getting to the right spots. Everybody was playing so well. It was a real team effort tonight. We played them before. We knew that they were a good hitting and blocking team and felt if we could get past the blocks and get into their back we could take advantage of them."
Milbourn was the catalyst for the game plan. The junior setter dished out 27 assists and had two kills and an ace.
"We were trying to get past them because we really wanted to get to the region finals," Milbourn said. "We played them before and knew they would be tough, so we just needed to play our own game. We needed to get past their blocks. They had some good lefties, and we practiced against that. To go back to region final is exciting. It's a whole new year."
Nobody had big numbers for Lakewood Ranch as things were equally distributed. Nicole Grant had six kills and two blocks, Emily Ruple chipped in with four kills and five digs, and Lauren Owens had four kills, one ace and three digs.
The last time Lakewood Ranch trailed in the match was when it fell behind 6-5 in the first game. It led 19-11 in the final game when Sickles made a run to cut it to 20-16, but the Mustangs responded with a 5-1 run.
"We are really excited to be back in the region final. We want to get to the state this year," Hankins said. "It will definitely help that we've been there. It always takes a while to get somewhere and then learn how to play there. We will play much better at the region final this time. As far as what we need to do ourselves we are good with that. We will just work on stuff to go against the other team."