BELLS — When realignment happened in February, there was a group of schools happy to know that Van Alstyne was leaving their volleyball district. After earning the state runner-up spot in Class 3A, the Lady Panthers headed to 4A starting with this season.
The sigh of relief didn’t last very long once they took a look at the latest groupings. Sliding into the vacancy atop the standings were the Gunter Lady Tigers with a core which had been the Region II runner-up the past two seasons and has plans to make sure they end up at state this time around.
"Preseason we wanted to be at least 8-2 and we were 9-1, so we accomplished that goal," Gunter head coach Katelyn Gill said. "We want to be undefeated district champs. That’s our goal now. We want to be regional champions. That’s the next goal."
The Lady Tigers took the first of the 14 steps needed towards their current checklist as Gunter defeated Bells, 25-11, 25-11, 25-11, in the District 11-3A opener.
"The biggest thing we’ve been working on is playing low-error volleyball," Gill said. "We got a lot of bodies out there and everyone had a high execution rate."
Miranda Putnicki had 11 kills and Bethany Gilbreath added eight kills for Gunter (10-1, 1-0), which plays at Howe on Friday afternoon.
"We’re very well-balanced," Gill said. "They each know they have a circle of influence in how they affect things when they are on the court."
Jaiden Tocquigny had six kills, Gabby Smith added four kills and four digs, Kayton Arnold chipped in three kills and Cheznie Hale handed out 10 assists for Bells (5-5, 0-1), which hosts Pottsboro on Friday afternoon.
The Lady Panthers drew the short straw in the district schedule by starting off with Gunter, whose only loss is against Class 4A state semifinalist Kennedale, but there are plenty of opportunities with the matches remaining as they chase their seventh playoff appearance in eight seasons.
"I think it’s always a challenge, especially with the teams in this district," Bells head coach Lisa Johnson said. "We’ve created rivalries with a lot of them. Our main goal is working on ourselves. I don’t think it matters who we play."
The opening game turned out to be the most competitive. Bells had a couple of early leads and the teams consistently traded points with no side gaining more than a one-point advantage until Gunter used a 5-1 burst to go up 11-8. In that stretch the score was tied at eight but from that point on the rest of the match belonged to Gunter.
"These girls are going to fight. They’re going to come out swinging," Johnson said. "We want to be up there with them."
After Bells got within two points (12-10), the Lady Tigers closed out the frame on a 13-1 run, including eight straight at the start of it with Nyah Ingram as the service line putting down three aces.
The teams traded service errors and then Hanna Rubis and Jacee Childers closed it out with kills.
Game 2 started out exactly how the opener ended. Tocquigny’s kill tied the score at one and then the Lady Tigers ripped off 12 straight points with 10 doing damage at the service line as the gap widened to 13-1. Putnicki and Rayanna Mauldin led the way at the net during that stretch and Bells wasn’t able to recover in falling behind 2-0 in the match.
The Lady Panthers had two chances to push the deficit back to single digits but Gunter wasn’t about to provide any hope as it was poised for the sweep.
Things stayed in that direction as the Lady Tigers scored seven of the first eight points in Game 3 with Rubis leading the way.
Smith and Tocquigny tried to put together some offense for Bells but Gunter responded with a 5-0 run capped by an Ingram ace that put Gunter up 16-5.
Shae Pruiett had consecutive aces as the Lady Tigers notched six straight points to close out an 11-1 surge and Gunter cruised the rest of the stanza to finish out the victory.