BRADENTON -- They saw a big lead and momentum slip away.
Then Cardinal Mooney's girls volleyball team refocused.
"We talked about how Saint Stephen's always starts off really strong," Cougars head coach Kristen Batt said. "And that we had to go out strong ... to kind of steal the momentum back."
Heeding Batt's advice, the Cougars survived a scare from Saint Stephen's in Tuesday's Class 3A-District 10 semifinal at Bradenton Christian.
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Cardinal Mooney, the tournament's top seed, took the decisive fifth game 15-6 en route to a 3-2 victory and advancement to Thursday's district final.
Tuesday's triumph also meant the Cougars (20-7) are assured of a region tournament appearance, awarded to the top two finishers in each district, for the 19th time in the past 20 years.
But earning that berth wasn't as easy as it first looked.
Mooney peeled off 25-20 and 26-24 victories in the first two games, before the Falcons soared back with wins (25-22 and 26-24) in the next two games.
"It was kind of a push and push-back match," Batt said. "They push us, and we push back. We ended up pushing last."
Mooney outscored Saint Stephen's 10-1 in the fifth game to clinch a spot in the district final.
The Cougars, though, nearly ended it in the fourth game.
Mooney had two match points, but Falcons (9-8) senior Paige Lindsay delivered two blocks to extend the match.
"That's true desire, and I am so proud of them," Saint Stephen's head coach Shameka Walker said. "Obviously, it didn't go our way. But, still, they played a good match and this is a team they haven't been able to take a set off of."
Mooney was paced by Keri McMahon (19 kills, 15 digs, three aces), Maddie McNally (17 kills, 14 digs, four aces) and Brooke Picchi (nine kills, three blocks).
Saint Stephen's senior Kassandra Woodruff had a game-high 21 kills and added 18 digs, while Sophie Bilik (16 kills, 23 digs) and Bryce Liebel (three kills, 32 assists, nine digs) aided the Falcons' effort, too.
While Mooney was pushed to the brink against Saint Stephen's, the Cougars' opponent in Thursday's final, Out-of-Door Academy, breezed its way to a sweep against tournament host Bradenton Christian in Tuesday's second semifinal.
The Thunder ripped off a 25-14, 25-15, 25-20 victory against the Panthers, who finished their season with a 13-13 mark.
"They definitely have a couple big hitters, no doubt," BCS head coach Allen James said. "But if I had to pick something, I'd say our passing (let us down)."
ODA's height along the front line, which features several players at 5-foot-10 or taller, caused issues for the Panthers, who received key contributions from senior Savannah Shontere (10 digs, two aces) and junior Olivia McDaniel (eight digs).
The senior tandem of Natalie Buffett (16 kills, 11 digs) and Monica Costa (five aces, 31 assists) were instrumental to the Thunder's success.
"If we're playing aggressively at the net as we should be, then it's a huge advantage," ODA head coach Stefanie Betz said of the Thunder's edge in height against BCS.
Mooney won both regular season meetings against ODA, but Betz said her team didn't play the way it is capable of against the Cougars.
Thursday's winner will host a first-round region game, while the loser hits the road.