WINTER HAVEN -- Perri Hankins has a basic philosophy: First you have to get there, and then you have to know what to do.
The veteran coach was talking about the region final and her Lakewood Ranch volleyball team.
Last year, she guided the program to its first region title match and lost. The Mustangs made it back this year and on Saturday showed they know what to do.
Lakewood Ranch swept host Winter Haven 25-18, 25-20 and 25-21 to win the Class 6A-Region 3 championship. The Mustangs will face Saint Augustine in a 6A state semi
final match at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
A year ago in the region final, Lakewood Ranch was swept in three sets by host Tarpon Springs. Winter Haven (20-5) beat Tarpon Springs earlier in the week and seemed to have the advantage playing at home.
But Lakewood Ranch (23-5) had something more valuable. The Mustangs brought an attitude into the gym that they were not going to lose. You could see it in their eyes, in their body language and in how they played.
"It didn't matter where we played or who we played," Hankins said. "We've been playing good and having great practices, and the chemistry has been really good so we're confident coming in. The way we are playing it's like whatever court we are playing on and who we play against doesn't matter.
"It helped a lot that we were not going into the regional final for the first time. We have eight returning players from last year's team."
What mattered a great deal Saturday was the play of the Mustangs' two power hitters, senior Mariah Robertson and 6-foot junior Ashlyn Falahee.
Robertson finished with eight kills, three stuff blocks, two aces and 10 digs. Falahee was credited with eight kills and three blocks.
Robertson never forgot the disappointment she felt at last year's region final and had the eye of a killer on the court against Winter Haven, coming through with big hits almost every time the Blue Devils made a run.
"Last year helped us. We did our best to prepare so we wouldn't repeat what happened, but I think we kicked it up a whole other notch," Robertson said. "Our adrenalin was really high. We came in here with the attitude we are going to win. We are going to do it this year. We didn't have a home-court advantage, but felt, 'OK, let's beat them in their own gym.'"
Lakewood Ranch led from almost the outset in the first game and finished strong. The second game was tied at 18 when Robertson unleashed her power and came up with three straight kills to spark a 4-0 run, which she capped off with the game-winning kill.
Winter Haven jumped off to a 7-4 lead in the third game, but Lakewood Ranch responded with a 10-1 run sparked by Falahee's three kills.
Winter Haven cut its deficit to 20-19. Kills by Nicole Grant and Robertson pushed the lead to 22-19, but Winter Haven refused to fold and again cut its deficit to a single point, trailing 22-21. The Blue Devils than hit back-to-back shots that went too long, and the match was over.
Falahaee played a big role in the final game with five skills. Grant finished with eight kills and one block, and setter Ali Milbourn had 22 assists, two aces and a kill.
"I was definitely emotional out there. We had never gotten further than this, and it's such a great accomplishment for Lakewood Ranch," Falahee said. "I don't want any of the seniors to leave. I think people feed off my emotions, and I love getting everyone pumped up. We win a lot of games when everyone is happy. It's absolutely amazing. It's so unreal we are going to Orlando (Kissimmee) on Tuesday. It's so unreal."
In the other 6A state semifinal match on Tuesday, Fort Myers faces Ocala Vanguard at noon. The state championship final is slated for 4:05 p.m. Wednesday. Fort Myers lost in the 6A state final last year to Tallahassee Leon.