A month ago, it seemed C-1 Sub-District 8 had the potential to send three teams onto the district round regardless of the tournament results.
St. Paul, Lakeview and Scotus Central Catholic were all ranked in the top 10 and cruising to what seemed like a rather entertaining couple of nights at Columbus High.
And while it should still be entertaining, the stakes have risen significantly. When first serve is made between the Shamrocks and Lady Vikes on Monday, it will be in a battle for survival.
Scotus and Lakeview have limped to the finish line, dropping far enough in the wildcard standings that the loser will see the season come to a close. The winner will advance likely to play St. Paul, and will need another victory to ensure an invitation to Saturday's district finals.
Scotus was 12-4 before a 4-8 October that included Lakeview twice, C-2 No. 3 Grand Island Central Catholic twice, C-2 No. 7 Wahoo Neumann twice, Class B No. 7 Hastings, C-2 No. 2 Hastings St. Cecilia and D-1 No. 6 Fremont Bergan once each.
Lakeview was 14-2 until a 7-8 stretch that included Scotus twice, St. Paul, Neumann, No. 7 Norfolk Catholic and C-2 No. 5 Lutheran High Northeast.
"As a coaching staff, you try to find balance. There has to be preparation, there has to be a game plan, but we don't want to overthink so that we're thinking and not playing. I know that's not our best option," Lakeview coach K.C. Belitz said playing a Scotus his group will see for a fourth time this season.
"We're going to try to find the right balance between giving them enough information to be successful and not so much they can't feel loose and free and not play the game they know how to play."
Scotus has taken two of three in the series this season, winning in three at the Shamrock Invite on Sept. 7 when Lakeview took the first set then at the Columbus Classic on Oct. 5 in the third-place match, sweeping in two.
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Lakeview won the lone five-set match Oct. 1 on Scotus' home floor - the first time since the game was changed to rally scoring in 2004 that the Lady Vikes won a five-set match inside the Dowd Activity Center.
"I think it's the same old adage. It'll come down to the serve and serve receive game," Scotus coach Janet Tooley said. "We match up fairly well as far as size goes, as far as experience goes. Even though they're young, they've probably got a little bit more varsity experience on their court. But I think it will come down to the serve, serve receive."
Scotus and Lakeview have played three times in each of the last six seasons due to the Shamrock Invite, Columbus Classic and normal regular season meeting.
The two last met four times in 2013, all four wins for Scotus. Lakeview had a two sets to one lead in the match but lost the fourth then lost the fifth 16-14. The last time the Lady Vikes won a postseason match between the two was just three years ago in the sub-district final on Halloween.
"Nobody is going to be overlooking anybody. I'm just hoping for a good match, and that's what it should be at the sub-district tournament. It's just unfortunate that there's three really tough sub-districts out there," Tooley said. "The sub-state program makes it better. But there's no ideal system. Because of three loaded districts, there are going to be some good teams that are staying home this year."
Lakeview lost to Scotus in the sub-district final last year and has played in a district final as recently as three years ago, advancing with the win over Scotus noted earlier.
The Shamrocks have won their first-round sub-district game at least as far back as NSAA website records indicate - 16 years in a row.
"This group has expectations of themselves, and that's not a bad thing, but that does put some pressure on them," Belitz said. "Pressure is not necessarily bad. It can be motivating, and you don't want to be so loose you're not focused on playing well. ...It all depends on how they handle it and how they deal with it. They've got to find a way for the expectations to be motivation."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.