GUNTER — The first three weeks of the season saw the Lady Tigers punching above their weight class, picking up as many wins as losses against teams from bigger classifications.
The schedule was by design, especially to challenge a group coming off its best season in school history by reaching the state quarterfinals. So while the record might not have looked all that pretty following a couple of tough tournament outings, Gunter was ready to make the statement it isn’t going to give up its claim to one of the top spots in the region very easily.
“We’ve really grabbed a hold of not being the best right now but peaking at the right time,” Gunter head coach Katelyn Gill said. “They buy in and we outwork people and that’s a good identity. We’re taking it one match at a time and that’s the right approach with this group.”
In what could be a third-round playoff preview, Shae Pruiett had 13 kills and five digs as the Lady Tigers defeated Van Alstyne, 25-23, 25-18, 25-17, in non-district action.
Beth Gilbreath finished with 12 kills and 13 digs and Jacee Childers handed out 39 assists to go with 15 digs for Gunter (10-8), which plays in the Nocona Tournament on Thursday before hosting Lindsay in non-district action on Friday.
Micah Welch had 13 kills, 18 digs and 11 assists, Valerie Young chipped in eight kills, 16 assists and 12 digs, Lindi Boling collected 22 digs and Sydney Ingram put down seven kills for Van Alstyne (18-4), which was coming off winning the Whitesboro Tournament on Saturday.
The opening game turned out to be the pivotal one with the way the Lady Tigers closed it out.
Van Alstyne had a one-point advantage just twice — 2-1 and 16-15 — before the Lady Panthers regained the lead at 20-19 on a kill by Ingram. Welch added a pair of kills and Ingram followed with another to put Van Alstyne on the verge of closing out Game 1. The final two points never came.
Gunter notched the final six points, getting half on VA errors and kills from Gilbreath, Raynanna Mauldin and Lakin Satre to rally from what seemed like an inevitable 1-0 hole.
“My kids are really resilient. We’ve been working on minimizing our errors,” Gill said. “We have no seniors and four freshmen. We’ve been close in the losses even though we were making mistakes. We were just giving points away.”
It would have been a stinging defeat after the Lady Tigers led for most of the time. They went in front at 4-3 and built what swelled to a six-point margin at 14-8 before Van Alstyne battled back.
Samantha Moore and Darcey Earley keyed separate runs of three consecutive points which allowed the Lady Panthers to jump ahead by a point. The score was tied four times before Van Alstyne had its 4-0 burst preceding the Lady Tigers’ final answer.
“It clicked that set and rolled over to the next one,” Gill said. “Everybody did their job and executed.”
That momentum remained into Game 2 as Gunter raced out to a 7-2 advantage. The Lady Panthers regained their composure and chipped away at the deficit before Pruiett punctuated a 5-0 surge with a pair of kills to get Gunter’s lead back to seven.
Van Alstyne countered immediately with a 6-0 run started by Hannah Hemphill and finished by Ingram as the margin was down to a point.
It was as close as the Lady Panthers got to tying the match. Gilbreath and Hanna Rubis were at the center of another momentum swing — 5-1 — which widened the gap to five and provided a cushion for the home side to take to the end of the stanza.
The only lead Van Alstyne had in Game 3 came on the first point. The teams traded the next three points before Gunter took the lead for good.
Van Alstyne kept it close in the early portion before Childers sandwiched kills around one from Mauldin and the Lady Tigers went up 12-7. The Lady Panthers had a quick answer, however, with a 5-0 run powered with Welch at the service line to tie the game.
There was one more tie two points later before Gunter was able to hold Van Alstyne at arm’s length the rest of the way. Young had back-to-back kills and followed with an ace to get Van Alstyne within two at 19-17 but Satre and Mauldin led a 6-0 burst to finish off the sweep.