BELLS — After having just one senior surrounded by a bevy of underclassmen, the Lady Yellow Jackets hoped the growing pains would be worth it.
There were so many fresh faces trying to navigate a varsity roster for the first time and the whole season was a struggle. Denison knew the chemistry and experience had an opportunity to pay off in the long run and through the first couple weeks of this year, the Lady Jackets seem to be trending in that direction.
“The girls come in every day and work hard. Every time we play we’re prepared to play our game,” Denison head coach Jana Kelly said. “We set the bar high pretty early and the girls know they shouldn’t play any less than that bar.”
Coming off the consolation title in their own tournament, the Lady Jackets carried over their strong week of play with a 25-18, 25-16, 25-23 win against Bells in non-district action on Tuesday night.
“Our goal is to play as consistent as a team and as good as we can play,” Kelly said. “We’re getting better every time we get on the floor.”
Taryn Gaines had 11 kills and 10 digs, Ashlinn Hamilton put down 10 kills, Kenzie Clark handed out 18 assists to go with 12 digs, Maddie Marr added seven assists and five digs and Madison Chambless collected eight digs for Denison (10-7), which competes in the Argyle Tournament starting on Thursday.
It was the fifth win in the last seven matches for a program that didn’t get to double-digit wins all of last season and can keep adding to that total before district play starts in little more than a month.
“Right now we’re doing some really good things and you don’t want to peak too early,” Kelly said. “We want to be as confident as we can when district comes around.”
Gabby Smith had 15 kills, Bella Smith chipped in four kills, Cheyenne Floyd totaled 20 assists and two kills and Mia Moore collected 14 digs for Bells (8-6), which will play at Tom Bean on Friday.
The Lady Panthers nearly extended the match when they battled back to tie the Game 3 at 19. Bells jumped out to an early 4-2 lead before Denison’s 6-1 run had them in front by a 14-9 score.
The Lady Jackets maintained that five-point difference until Floyd stepped to the service line and the Lady Panthers were suddenly down one. After trading points a Denison hitting error tied the score. But Marr notched a kill to put the visitors back in front for good and even though Bells pulled within one twice, including staving off a pair of match points, Hamilton’s kill closed out the victory with a sweep.
“We just played them in our tournament so we knew they weren’t going to quit,” Kelly said. “They were going to fight and you saw that in Game 3.”
The Lady Panthers were on their way to tying the match in Game 2 by bouncing back from a rough stretch in the middle of the opening stanza. Denison took the early lead before Bells settled in. A 5-0 run with Floyd at the service line quickly turned a tie game into a 12-7 advantage for the home side. The momentum quickly shifted back to Denison following a time out as Gaines led a surge of six consecutive points to put Denison right back in front.
Jaiden Tocquigny’s block and a Denison service error gave Bells a pair of leads, the last at 15-14. What had been a nip-and-tuck game then got away from the Lady Panthers late.
The Lady Jackets went on an 11-1 run, starting with seven straight points, behind Gaines and Hamilton to finish out the frame and avoid turning Game 3 into a pivotal contest.
Denison led almost wire-to-wire in Game 1 with Bells earning at tie after the first four points as the only time the Lady Jackets weren’t in front.
Elizabeth Linwood and Hamilton each had kills during a 6-0 run that gave Denison a 12-4 advantage and then when the Lady Panthers chipped away at that deficit, the Lady Jackets responded with a 7-1 surge which included contributions at the net from Gaines, Chambless and Clark for a 20-8 margin.
After Bells was able to trim the margin into single digits, Gabby Smith put down an ace and the Lady Panthers got within six before the Lady Jackets closed out the frame.
“We haven’t had those down sets as often as we did last year,” Kelly said. “The focus is to get on a run and get three, four or five points or more. I think there’s more confidence in what we can do.”