HOWE — They had already played twice, with each team coming away with a victory, and now the stakes were raised since district play had started.
The Howe Lady Bulldogs were already in an early hole after opening with a loss against Bells. The Whitewright Lady Tigers had yet to play because they opened with the bye.
Jockeying for early position can go a long way to ending a playoff drought, which both programs are trying to do.
Despite Whitewright coming close to rallying in each game, Howe was able to hold off the charges for a 25-21, 25-18, 25-20 victory in District 10-3A action.
Ally Harvey had 14 kills, five blocks and six digs, Sierra Copeland put down six kills, Jenna Honore totaled 10 assists, nine digs and three kills, Gracie Lankford collected 10 digs, Cassidy Anderson finished with 12 assists, 11 digs and four kills and Molly Wilson added 14 digs and three kills for Howe (13-12, 1-1), which hosts Blue Ridge on Friday.
Whitewright (4-17, 0-1), which had won the most recent meeting between the two in tournament action, is trying for its first playoff trip since 2013.
The first step in that direction went to Howe, which was sixth in the standings last year and four wins short from earning a berth. The path won’t be easy as defending 10-3A champ Van Alstyne, Bonham, Leonard and Blue Ridge are all vying to keep their spot in the top half of the standings.
The Lady Bulldogs haven’t been to the postseason since 2008 but already won more games than they did last year (nine).
“We’re kind of the underdogs,” Howe head coach Meghan Litchfield said. “I think we have the talent to make it. Consistency is what we have to focus on.”
Whitewright nearly extended the match by holding the lead for much of Game 3 but Howe was able to clinch the sweep with a late push.
The Lady Tigers reeled off four straight points, book-ended by plays at the net from Skylar Gerner, to take the lead at 5-3 and Whitewright got the advantage out to four points at 12-8.
The Lady Bulldogs continued to try and chip away at the deficit and pulled even at 14. It was part of a 7-1 run that moved Howe to a 19-15 lead.
After the Lady Tigers responded with a three points, including an ace from Savannah Warford, to get the margin back to one, Copeland started a 5-0 burst with a kill and Howe avoided having the match continue.
“We’ve struggled a lot when we win those first two games, to be able to close it out,” Litchfield said. “We talked about winning it in three. Serve-receive kills us at times. It’s getting better.”
In Game 2, the Lady Bulldogs raced out to a 7-0 lead with Lankford at the service line, Harvey picking up kills and looking to be on their way to a 2-0 advantage.
“Her hitting’s a lot more controlled this year. She’s reading those hitters better,” Litchfield said. “Everybody in our district knows about Ally. If we can get the other girls to play well, it’s a good thing because it makes us unpredictable.”
But Whitewright was able to shift the momentum back in its direction with a 5-0 run, the last two on aces by Katy Long, and pull the Lady Tigers with 16-14.
Howe didn’t flinch, however, and responded with four straight points as part of a 6-1 run to push the lead back to seven. Anderson sandwiched an ace between a block and kill by Harvey.
The Lady Bulldogs claimed the opening game in a back-and-forth battle where the largest lead only got to four a couple of times. After trading points in the early going, Harvey and Honore helped build a lead for the home team but Laura Simpson sandwiched kills around one from Callie McGee as Whitewright jumped in front.
The Lady Tigers were able to maintain the slim advantage in the middle of Game 1, getting out to a 12-9 lead, but Harvey had back-to-back kills to tie the frame at 13 and Whitewright never led again.
It wasn’t an easy finish to the game for Howe. Harvey and Honore notched four straight points to get the Lady Bulldogs up 18-14 before the Lady Tigers put up a fight and were down just 19-18. Then when Howe was up 22-18, Whitewright again responded with plays by Emily Looney and Simpson and the deficit was back to one at 22-21.
A service error provided the Lady Bulldogs with some breathing room and Copeland finished off the game with a kill to stake Howe to the early lead.