Winona proved to be best in class at the MSHSAA final four going undefeated in Friday's round-robin play, then sweeping the Lady Mules in the title match.
Winona was Bernie's first opponent as final four play opened Friday morning, and the Lady Wildcats gave fans a glimpse of what was to be in store of the other three Class 1 teams with a 25-18, 25-23 win over the Lady Mules.
The heart-wrenching loss for Bernie was hard to take, but it couldn't over shadow a remarkable season put together by the Lady Mules under new coach Erin Hoffman.
Bernie won the SEMO tournament, the Stoddard County Activities Association's annual tournament, then tacked on the school's 18th District championship and beat state-ranked Advance in the sectionals to reach the final four.
"I'm very pleased," Hoffman said of her team's effort. "I don't think we let them walk all over us. We gave them a challenge. I thought it was a very good championship game. I feel like my girls played their hearts out. You are going to make errors. But I feel like everyone put everything into the game."
Early in the season, Bernie was a long shot to even reach the final four. At one point during the season, the Lady Mules dropped three consecutive games and looked like anything but a final four team.
But once things began to come together and players began to buy into Hoffman's new scheme, the Lady Mules turned things around. The Lady Mules looked poised and played with confidence on the state's biggest stage for volleyball.
"We all talked about it," Hoffman said of her team not playing nervous or intimidated. "At this point why not? There is nothing else. Why not just, everything you've got right now. There is no need to be nervous.
"You know, we were kind of the underdogs," she continued. "I mean we were very much the underdogs. For three-fourths of the season nobody even thought we would be here. So they really fought long hard and they decided this game lets just play."
Bernie showed its resolve in the championship match in the opening game when the Lady Mules fell behind 19-12 and later 23-14 before fighting back to finish the game on a 7-2 run.
Even after dropping the opening game 25-21, Bernie regrouped and came out strong in Game 2 and took a early 8-2 lead. But in the end, the Lady Mules couldn't adjust enough to counter the hitting of Winona's talented duo of junior Nola McAfee and sophomore Rachel Holthaus.
"Number 11 (Holthaus) was probably more of threat to us," Hoffman said when asked about the 6'1" McAfee. "We just kept working with the middles on being a little bit quicker on the technique, and it started to pay off a little bit there towards the end. We just ran out of time."
A 6-0 run by Winona gave the Lady Wildcats their first lead in Game 2, 13-12. From there, the difference was never more than one point until at 19-all, Winona put together a 4-0 run to surge to a late 23-19 advantage.
A kill by Bernie's Tori Lowery was answered by McAfee to make it 24-20. A Winona service error made it 24-21, but a kill by Holthaus ended the contest.
McAfee finished with 14 kills while Holthaus knocked down 10.
Bernie's Ellen Snider and Lowery each finished with a game-high seven kills, followed by Jordan Ellenburg with six and Chelsea Wagner with 4.
Katelyn Baker again led the Lady Mules in assists with 24, while Wagner was charted with nine digs and Paige Mays with eight.
It was Hoffman's first season to work with a group of six Bernie seniors. Hoffman said Snider, Wagner, Baker, Mays, Jodi McGowan and Caitlyn Mayberry will be missed.
"It was great," Hoffman said of her first year to work with the seniors and guide the team. "I think the best part was that a lot of times they say you can't teach old dogs new tricks. And even though there was a huge transition period there during the season, they listened. They wanted to learn and get better. They became very smart players. They could have easily just (said) we're seniors," she continued. "Lets just finish the way we've always done things and of course we had that week there that was trouble. But they took to me really well I guess."
Bernie finishes the season 27-9-2.