The more things change in 9th District high school volleyball, the more they stay the same.
Despite significant improvements by both Daviess County and Owensboro this season, it will be traditional powers -- and longtime arch-rivals -- Apollo and Owensboro Catholic playing for the championship once again.
In a semifinal doubleheader on Monday before an energetic crowd at Apollo High School, the host E-Gals battled past a game Daviess County team in four sets, while Catholic shook off a slow start to sweep Owensboro.
The E-Gals (24-11) and top-seeded Lady Aces (22-10) clash at 6 p.m. Thursday for the title.
In a thrill-packed second semifinal nightcap, Apollo rallied past DC 24-26, 27-25, 28-26, 25-16 to secure a spot in the finals.
"That was some battle -- both teams brought their 'A' games," E-Gals coach Mary Howard said. "This is one of the best matches we've played all year and we needed it to beat Daviess County.
"I thought as the match wore on we became more aggressive at the net and started attacking more effectively.
"We take a lot of pride in defending our home floor and the girls had to dig deep to get this one."
Daviess County was in control most of the way in the first set, but Apollo rallied to take a 24-23 lead. But consecutive kills by Jasmine Beasley and clinching kill by Ashton Johnson pulled out the first set for the Lady Panthers.
DC remained in control for much of the second set as well, leading at one juncture 17-10, but Apollo rallied for eight consecutive points to seize the lead. The Lady Panthers led 25-24 before Apollo rallied for the final three points -- getting a kill from Whitley Chambers and an ace from Tallie Satterfield.
The Lady Panthers (19-10) also had a golden opportunity to win the third set, leading 22-17 late, but Apollo got strong play at the net from 6-foot-4 senior Natalie Ewing and scored 11 of the final 14 points to pull it out. Kills from Chambers, Brylee Rhodes and Satterfield accounted for the final three points.
That seemed to take the wind out of the sails of Daviess County, which fell behind 16-4 to start the fifth set. The Lady Panthers rallied to draw within 19-15, but Apollo pulled away down the stretch to wrap it up.
"We came out strong," DC coach Tyla Bailey said, "but we couldn't finish. I'm proud of the girls, proud of our senior leadership -- I just hate coming up short."
Apollo was led by Ewing, who finished with 20 kills and five blocks. Other production came from Chambers (10 kills), Rhodes (12 kills, 6 blocks), Satterfield (48 assists), Hallie Wilson (20 digs), Anslee Hopewell (21 digs, 4 aces), Abby Spong (10 digs), Camryn Kerwick (4 aces) and Maddie Boswell (3 blocks).
DC was led by Hannah Axley (19 assists), Delaney Evans (9 digs), Beasley (11 kills, 5 blocks), Ryann Keller (23 assists), Johnson (11 kills), Kayla Clark (8 digs), Kinsley Phelps (6 blocks, 3 kills), Kloee Phelps (10 digs), Kendal Goetz (21 digs) and Elizabeth Moore (12 kills).
In the opening semifinal, Catholic defeated OHS 25-22, 25-14, 25-19.
"After the first set, we did better with our passing, our service, and putting balls down," Lady Aces senior setter Cecilia Clemens said. "We got more aggressive all the way around and that made a big difference.
"We're pretty satisfied with our defense, and our serves were much better in this match than they've been.
"Owensboro has improved a lot. Their defense and their serving is a lot better."
The Lady Devils (13-22) showed a lot of moxie in the first set. Despite falling behind 14-9, OHS rallied to tie the contest at 21 on a Mia Covington kill. The Lady Aces, however, were too tough at the end -- getting consecutive kills from Isabella Wright to end it.
Catholic raced to a 12-2 lead to open the second set on the way to an 11-point victory, and the Lady Aces jumped in 13-4 in the third set on the way to a six-point conquest.
"We played with hustle and heart," Owensboro coach Melissa Hibbs said. "Before, when we got down we stayed down. Now, fight back whenever we're down and I'm very proud of our team for the way they've battled.
"This is one of the toughest districts in the state, but the girls are beginning to see they can be competitive -- that's encouraging."
Catholic's production came from Jenna Glenn (5 digs), Cate Sites (2 kills), Madeline Castlen (9 kills, 5 blocks, 2 aces), Cassidy Towery (7 kills, 2 blocks, 5 digs), Allie Hamilton (5 kills), Wright (10 kills, 33 assists) and Clemens (2 kills, 2 blocks).
Armanda Pappas (5 kills, 10 digs, 3 blocks), Audretta Tyler (5 digs), Brooklyn Williams (3 digs), Jersie Rhineburger (16 digs), Kennedy Thompson (3 aces, eight assists, 5 digs), Krystell Pappas (7 kills, 8 assists, 8 digs), Lainey Hayden (3 kills, 3 blocks, 2 digs), Covington (5 kills, 5 blocks) and Mykael Winstead (3 kills, 3 assists, 10 digs).