POTTSBORO — There wasn't going to be anything easy about Van Alstyne's match to open the playoffs. Not when the opponent is the defending 3A state champions.
And while the roster was different and the record was under .500, it was no guarantee the Lady Panthers would end up advancing.
Callisburg has been to state the previous three seasons and held the crown from 2018 until someone took it. After the Lady Wildcats won the opening game, some of that title magic was in the air. But after Van Alstyne was able to wrestle away a pivotal Game 3, the Lady Panthers eliminated Callisburg, 19-25, 25-19, 28-26, 25-15, in a Class 3A Region II bi-district match.
Van Alstyne (32-4) will face either Dallas Madison or Quitman in the area round later this week.
“If you have the culture of winning, you're going to have that drive,” Lady Panthers head coach Veronica Mendez said. “They're a very well-coached team. Who better to give you a push than the defending state champions?”
Micah Welch had 12 kills, 24 digs, 16 assists, four blocks and three aces, Janessa Crawford chipped in 11 kills and four blocks, Valerie Young added eight kills, 16 assists, seven digs and three blocks, Samantha Moore totaled seven kills and five blocks, Hannah Hemphill contributed four kills and seven blocks, Sydney Ingram put down five kills, Lindi Boling collected 27 digs and Darcey Early finished with 12 digs for the Lady Panthers, who overcame the early deficit to even the match and then fended off three game points in Game 3.
“Our defenders did a great job and our setters did a great job of splitting up the net,” Mendez said.
Callisburg (15-25) led for a majority of the third game and was about to put the pressure back on Van Alstyne. But down 14-8, the Lady Panthers followed the lead of 9 and 16 and were down by one.
For the first time since 2-2, the game was deadlocked at 16 and Van Alstyne held its first lead a point later. The teams began trading points and Callisburg was up 20-19. Micah Welch overpowered a block attempt to spur a 4-0 run and suddenly the Lady Panthers were on the first of finishing out the stanza.
Then the Lady Cats answered with four points of their own and held a 24-23 advantage. Callisburg needed just one more point three separate times and it never came.
“Hesitation is a malevolent piece of volleyball,” Mendez said. “When it was tight and close like that I wanted them to be tough and brave.”
Crawford tied it at 26 with a kill and a Callisburg hitting error gave Van Alstyne its first chance to close it out. The Lady Panthers made the most of the opportunity with Valerie Young finishing off the game.
With a chance to close out the defending champs, Van Alstyne didn't allow Callisburg any hope of forcing a deciding Game 5. The Lady Panthers never trailed in the fourth frame and the score was tied just once — at six. Callisburg's best chance at extending the match came when Abby Pollard had a kill and a VA hitting error trimmed the margin to 12-11.
The Lady Panthers followed with a 7-0 run spearheaded by Moore, Ingram and Young to open up a 19-11 advantage. Callisburg notched the next three points before Van Alstyne answered with a 4-0 run and Crawford eventually had back-to-back kills to seal the victory.
“In that set, our mentality was finally on volleyball. We were thinking about all these different things,” Mendez said. “All our energy needed to go into Game 4. Nothing but that set mattered.”
Callisburg looked to be on its way to going up 2-0 when it raced out to a 6-1 lead in Game 2. Welch, Crawford and Hemphill all had kills as Van Alstyne started to chip away at the deficit. The Lady Panthers pulled even at eight and took their first lead at 12-11.
“I thought we were going to wipe the slate clean in Game 2 and we were still making the same errors,” Mendez said.
A 6-0 run turned things in Van Alstyne's favor and gave just enough cushion that four straight points by Callisburg put the Lady Wildcats down by one. Three more times Callisburg was able to get within a point, the last at 19-18, but could never pull even.
Crawford had a kill to start the closing 4-0 run as Van Alstyne evened the match.
The first part of Game 1 went back and forth. Van Alstyne held the early advantage before Callisburg jumped to the lead. Then when the Lady Panthers looked to be establishing control, the Lady Wildcats used an 8-1 run that turned a 13-10 deficit into an 18-14 lead.
Young and Crawford helped VA reel off four straight points to get even at 18. But Emma Sledge's kill sparked a 4-0 spurt from Callisburg and the Lady Wildcats never trailed again in the frame.
It was the first time since the middle of September that Van Alstyne wasn't going to come away with a sweep.
“We haven't had a loud gym in so long. I don't think we've had to go past three sets in a while,” Mendez said. “I think we had to adjust to the shock of a playoff atmosphere.”