The end was as sudden as Bluffton's run to the Class 4-A Lower State girls tennis final was stirring.
Wando deflated the Bobcats' Cinderella hopes with quick efficiency Tuesday, winning five of six matches to earn a return trip to the championship stage where the Warriors fell just short a year ago.
The evening's lone victory came at the end when Bluffton's Karina Szatmari battled back from an early deficit to capture the No.5 singles in three sets against Morgan Mitchell, 1-6, 6-4, 10-6.
"We fought. That's all we could do," Bobcats coach Bob Brown said. "They're at the level we want to be at. You can see the difference between us. But we fought with everything we had, like we've done the whole year. We've gone farther than we've ever gone. I couldn't ask for anything more."
Szatmari bounced back after a tough opening set, wresting the momentum away after the match was moved from the unlighted Court 5 to finish under the lights. The second set stood 3-3 at the time, before the eighth-grader won three of the next four.
As Brown was about to offer advice before the third set, Szatmari cut him off.
"She says, 'Coach, I've got this.' That's pretty cool," he said.
Szatmari was playing for just the second time in singles, after winning her debut in last week's Lower State semifinals against James Island. In deliberating his lineup Tuesday, Brown let her make the call on keeping that spot or returning to doubles.
"We put her in a tough position," the coach said. "I asked her what she wanted to play and she said singles."
Wando finished runner-up to Dutch Fork 4-3 in last year's final, sweeping the lower three singles to push that encounter to a deciding No.1 doubles. Every singles starter from that team is back, though some have been bumped down the order by new names.
"This team (Wando) is a blueblood team," Brown said, noting that the Warriors had dispatched perennial power Lexington 4-2 to reach the Lower State final.
"We knew this was going to be tough because Lexington is our barometer, and this team beat Lexington soundly. So we were a little bit nervous about playing a team that beat the giant."
The Bobcats (15-5) had other moments, too, including a plucky comeback effort by No.1 Natalie Bassett against Lauren Quinn before suffering her first loss of the season, 6-2, 6-4.
Bassett's unrelenting ability to extend rallies began to exact a toll on Quinn, allowing the seventh-grader to grab a 4-1 lead in the second set. But Quinn found a second wind, dug deep and reeled off the next five games to keep a third set at bay.
"That girl had to work to beat her, and she knew she had to work," Brown said. "At the end of the match, (Quinn) hunkered down and did what she had to get it done. She knew how to close it out."
Bassett's first loss ended a streak of 19 consecutive wins. She'll get a chance to add a few more next week when the state singles championships begin Monday in Cayce.
Senior Cooper Baxter also made things difficult on Wando's Tyler Kirk, grabbing a 2-1 lead in the second set before succumbing 6-3, 6-2. In the end, though, the Bobcats could not match Wando's overall quality.
Nonetheless, Brown was quick to remind his girls that this team had made school history by advancing to the final four.
The Bobcats now lose four seniors — Baxter, Angie Castrillon, Muriel Williams and Lauren Bierschenk — with other losses likely as the school splits to create the new May River High.
"This is a special moment in time for me," Brown said. "We might not get this good again for a while."
WANDO 5, BLUFFTON 1
Singles: 1. Lauren Quinn (W) def Natalie Bassett (B), 6-2, 6-4; 2. Lily Conant (W) def. Rachel Riley (B), 6-3, 6-1; 3. Tyler Kirk (W) def. Cooper Baxter (B), 6-3, 6-2; 4. Brittany Hellberg (W) def. Angie Castrillon (B), 6-0, 6-0; 5. Karina Szatmari (B) def. Morgan Mitchell (W), 1-6, 6-4, 10-6.
Doubles: 2. Penelope Hayes/Shianno Guo (W) def. Muriel Williams/Chloe Thomas (B), 6-2, 6-2.