MANSON – The hugs were long-lasting and the tears dripped down to the feet of every one of the crestfallen South Hamilton volleyball players following a two-hour battle here Tuesday night.

And as the large South Hamilton crowd rose to its feet and serenaded the team with thunderous applause, all 15 players turned and waved in appreciation. The consolation prize was welcomed and helped to lift the spirits of the Hawks, but that’s not what they traveled 63 miles to claim.

Alas, the program’s first berth in the state tournament was put on hold again.

Gritty and determined throughout, 14th-ranked South Hamilton simply didn’t have the size or depth to overcome the relentless attack of lanky and talented Unity Christian, as the second-ranked Knights scooped up their third straight ticket to state with a 3-1 victory over the Hawks in the Class 2A Region 2 final.

On the strength of its 25-14, 25-20, 26-28, 25-18 triumph, Unity Christian (34-4) earned a state quarterfinal-round date with 12th-ranked Mediapolis (33-7) next Wednesday inside the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids. South Hamilton (25-6) dropped to 0-3 all-time in regional final matches.

“It sucks, but I know at the same time that we played our best,” South Hamilton senior leader Ady Wintermote said after she wrapped up her career with 14 more kills to give her a final tally of 1,112. “I feel like we played hard and left everything on the floor and that’s really all you can do.”

Trailing 2-0 and down 18-12 in the third set, South Hamilton mounted a comeback reminiscent of last week’s rally past No. 13 South Central Calhoun in the regional semifinal round. A 6-0 spurt behind the serving of Anna Moss put the Hawks right back into contention and the two teams were tied six more times before the Hawks eventually survived on a slam from Alissa Moss.

Locked at 26, South Hamilton earned the deciding set point on a desperation dig by Breanne Diersen from the left side of the floor. Diersen just happened to be in the path of a blistered attack by Unity Christian’s Josie Blankespoor; Diersen was able to get a fist on the ball and it smacked into the net and trickled over to the Knights’ side of the court.

“When we fought back in game three I thought it was South Central Calhoun all over again because we battled and battled,” South Hamilton head coach Rusty Wintermote said. “God bless (the players), they didn’t give up. They just kept fighting and showed they belonged.”

South Hamilton forged ahead 6-1 early in the fourth set, as Lily Skartvedt laced a pair of aces and Ady Wintermote delivered a kill and block during the flurry.

But then Unity Christian took over.

Backed by the imposing one-two punch of outside hitters Blankespoor and Corrina Timmermans, the Knights clawed back to tie the set at 8 and then went ahead for good at 9-8. Back-to-back kills by Blankespoor put the match on ice and started the celebration on Unity Christian’s half of the floor.

Blankespoor blasted a match-high 27 kills to go along with 11 digs. Corrina Timmermans produced 17 kills and 10 digs, while older sister and all-stater Allison Timmermans – the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-2 and a Wayne State recruit – distributed 46 assists, collected 15 digs and slapped three aces with a wicked jump serve.

“They had a hitter going everywhere and we just did not,” Rusty Wintermote said. “That’s probably the best blocking team we’ve faced all year. We knew their height along the net would cause us problems.”

Unity Christian put together sizable runs in each of the first two sets once Ady Wintermote was relegated to the back row. The Knights finished the opening set on a 15-4 run after it was knotted at 10 and then closed the second set on a 5-1 flurry.

The Knights cashed in on 57 kills, compared to just 26 for South Hamilton.

Taylor Ratzke added four kills for the Hawks, while Skartvedt finished with three kills, 10 digs and a team-best four ace serves. Anna Moss produced three aces as well as a match-high 27 digs. Wintermote piled up 15 digs.

Alissa Moss (15) and Taylor Volkmann (10) combined to hand out 25 assists. Alissa Moss, Diersen and Ratzke all finished with three blocks.

Five of South Hamilton’s six losses this season came against state qualifiers – in 3A, Nevada and North Polk; in 2A, Unity Christian; and in 1A, Janesville. The Hawks avenged the sixth loss when they tripped up South Central Calhoun last week.

It was a difficult goodbye for Rusty Wintermote, as he coached his daughter, Ady, and fellow seniors Alissa Moss and Emilee Wiese for the final time.

“The only message I gave them is that I thanked the three seniors that have allowed me to join them the last two years,” Rusty Wintermote said. “They taught me more about the game then I could have ever taught them.”