Bell topped the Lady Panthers 25-23, 25-15. They'll face host Middlesboro in Thursday's championship game and both teams will advance to next week's 13th Region tournament at Clay County.
Tuesday's first game ended on a controversial call. Knox Central scored seven straight points to cut the Lady Cat lead to 24-23. During the next rally Lady Panther senior LeAnn Kirschner was called for lifting the ball on an attempted set and game point was awarded to Bell County.
Lady Panther coach Barbara Gregory was still upset over the call after the match.
“I don't see how they can call up-lifting when she's got her hands up over her head and her fingers out to set the ball,” she said. “We had momentum going our way and I think we would have pulled it out.”
Hunt said she didn't have a clear view of the play, but would rather have gotten game point on a clear-cut winner or a ball hit out of bounds.
“You don't ever want to end a game on that kind of call,” she said. “I don't want to say we caught a break, but getting that first game out of the way got our girls fired up for game two.”
After falling behind 3-0 to start the first game, senior Megan Mills got the Bell offense rolling. She scored five straight service points as the Lady Cats rallied to take a 6-3 lead.
Sophomore Alyssa Gonzales scored back-to-back kills during the run.
With the score tied at 6, senior Angela Turner spiked a ball that deflected off a Knox Central player and out of bounds and the Lady Cats never trailed again.
Bell again scored five straight points, this time with Gonzales serving. The prettiest was a soft tap by junior Sydney McAninch that floated over Kirschner's hand and fell in front of the Lady Panther back row.
A block by McAninch made it 16-10 Bell and Gonzales' block put the Lady Cats up 18-12.
“Alyssa was huge for us,” Hunt said. “She was going up against a girl that was a foot taller than her and she did a phenomenal job.”
Senior Angel Turner's spike made it 20-14 and she later hit a pair of booming serves that Knox Central couldn't control and Bell looked to be cruising with a 24-16 lead.
But the Lady Panthers wouldn't go down without a fight.
Senior Jessica Farmer had a kill and on several occasions Bell players looking to end the game is spectacular fashion either hit the ball long, or smashed it into the net.
The score was 24-21 when Hunt called a time out to settle her team down.
“We talked about staying focused - focused and fired up is kind of our saying,” she said. “They stopped taking it seriously and weren't communicating.”
Two more unforced errors made it a one-point game before the questionable call ended the game.
“Bell has trouble sometimes with soft serves and we had our soft server (Stephanie Gregory) going and she got us back into the game,” coach Gregory said. “That call didn't win or lose it, but it sure took a lot of the fire out of us.”
Kirchner and Farmer's strong play up front kept the Lady Panthers close in game two. But Bell got a pair of early kills from Gonzales, a block from Angel Turner and an ace from Mills to take a 17-11 lead.
Junior setter Tiffanie Oliver consistently left the ball in good position for the Lady Cats' big hitters.
“Tiffanie played a great game, she took control of the floor tonight,” Hunt said.
Angela Turner's spike was deflected by Kirschner and hit into the net by Johnna Evans. Then Gonzales reeled off four straight serves that were too hard for the Lady Panthers to handle. A spike attempt into the net made it 23-13.
Farmer came through with a pair of kills, but Knox Central was again called for a carry. The score was 24-15 when Angel Turner's powerful serve was knocked high in the air and way out of bounds by Kirschner for match point.
The Lady Panthers season ends with a 4-12 record. But they battled through a rash of injuries and turned in one of their best performances of the year in the tournament.
“Kirschner blew her knee out in the district basketball tournament last year, she's got a torn MCL and a sprained ACL that are going to need surgery. And Farmer had shoulder surgery that she's never really recovered from,” Gregory said. “We've had a lot of girls to step up and fill spots for us this year.”
Hunt said she was concerned coming in that her team would take Knox Central lightly after not dropping a game to them during two regular season matches.
“I was very concerned that we'd get caught looking ahead,” she said. “I knew Barb was going to have her players back and they'd be a different team than the one we faced.”
The win ensures that Hunt's final season coaching the Lady Cats will include a trip to the regional tournament. She's getting married and moving to Texas in January.
“It's hard to leave. This has only been my team,” she said. “I've been the coach for all five years we've had volleyball and it's hard to turn it over to someone else.”
Bell County (11-10) will face Middlesboro (19-3-2) in the district championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday. With both schools out on fall break this week, the coaches are hopeful for a big turnout.
“It's the third time we've met in the championship game and I'd like to win one,” Hunt said. “It's a pride game, it's going to come down to who wants it more.”