Horndean missed out on a third consecutive National Shield final in Kettering after a straight sets loss to Essex Blaze.
The Deans, who have been runners up in the past two editions, found the division one side too tough to break at Boswells Schooll.
Although the scoreline was more respectable than in recent displays, the semi-final defeat makes it four straight losses for Horndean in all competitions.
Essex will be locking horns with fellow division one outfit Tendring for the Shield crown, while the Deans attempt to salvage what is left of their National League division two south season.
It was a turbulent February for the Deans, who have slipped from genuine contenders – in both national competitions – to also-rans.
But they pushed Essex to the limit in each set and only failed to get themselves over the line by a difference of two points on each occasion.
Despite the loss, player-coach Nasser Ssemuwemba – who has recently been critical of his team’s poor performances – was looking to the positives.
‘We’re trying our best to put things right,’ he said.
We know we have a difficult task in front of us.
‘Everybody played well but we just couldn’t finish the job.
‘We looked sharper than we have previously done and I thought we represented ourselves far better.
‘We were very unlucky not to have won a set or even the match.
‘Overall, we lost by only six points against a solid side that was assembled from three other teams.’
Essex Blaze had the luxury of selecting top players from two of their sister National League sides for the visit of Horndean.
They beefed up their squad with players from division two north outfit Essex Estonians and division three south team Essex Juniors.
But they had to come from behind to win the opening set 25-23 after the Deans squandered a 15-8 lead following a flying start.
‘We had a great start but allowed them back into the match because of a catalogue of individual mistakes,’ said play-maker Leandros Tsikras.
However, the second set was an evenly-contested affair, as both teams battled for points with well-placed and powerful serves, fierce fast-tempo attacks and hair-raising defensive manoeuvres.
And when the dust settled, it was the well-drilled Essex side who converted the crucial points to win it 28-26 and double their advantage in a nail-biting clash.
The third set also stretched beyond the normal points finish.
The Deans – through hard-hitting Haakon Lie and opposite player Damian Roberts – delivered good blocks and well-angled hits.
But their efforts could not stop Essex from emerging victorious, with a 26-24 triumph.
Deans middle-player Willard-Hans Shongue now wants a response.
‘This is the best I’ve seen us play in a long time,’ he said.
‘Our set-to-set performance against a strong Essex side is testimony that we are on track to getting back in form.
‘Now we are out of the Shield, we can concentrate on finishing as high as we can in the league.’
Horndean travel to Cardiff on Saturday, having never beaten a Celts side at the University of South Wales Sports park court (2pm).