TIOGA — When the season opened a little more than three months ago, Van Alstyne and Ponder couldn’t have known what was ahead.
Sure they felt they would be returning to the playoffs and of course they hoped it would be as the top seeds from their districts.
And if they did meet in the playoffs, it couldn’t possibly be as close as the five-gamer the Lady Panthers won to kick off the year, right?
They all turned out to be true statements, especially the last one. It wasn’t as close. It was even closer.
“We definitely saw that they’d gotten better but proportionately we have progressed as well,” Van Alstyne head coach Veronica Mendez said. “We won that one in five, by two.”
After being one point away from victory and then one point away from defeat, Van Alstyne survived against Ponder, 23-25, 25-14, 25-13, 22-25, 18-16, in a Class 3A Region II quarterfinal match.
“They’re just tough kids,” Mendez said. “It’s the fifth set in the end of November. It comes down to if your team is well-conditioned and can handle pressure. I think they showed both of those things tonight.”
Van Alstyne (34-4) will face Prairiland (24-6) in the region semifinals at 7 p.m. on Friday at Midlothian. The winner advances to the region final at 2 p.m. on Saturday for a spot at the state tournament. Van Alstyne advanced to the region tournament for the third time in six seasons but first since 2015. The Lady Panthers are trying to reach the region final for the first time since 1997.
Valerie Young had 14 kills, 22 assists, 22 digs and three blocks, Micah Welch added 14 kills, 26 assists and 14 digs, Sydney Ingram chipped in 11 kills and three blocks, Samantha Moore totaled 10 kills, four blocks and six digs, Hannah Hemphill put down seven kills, Janessa Crawford finished with five kills and two blocks, Lindi Boling collected 52 digs and Darcey Earley contributed 11 digs for Van Alstyne, which has won 16 straight matches.
Ponder (31-14) was trying to reach the region tournament for the second time, the first coming in 2016, and it looked to be on the way there with a 3-0 start to Game 5. The Lady Lions were up 6-2 and still ahead at 9-6 with Van Alstyne searching for a way to trim the deficit. The move finally came when Ingram put down a kill, Ponder made a hitting error, Welch landed an ace and Moore slammed a kill for an 11-10 lead. After Gracie Perryman’s block got Ponder even at 12, Young had back-to-back kills and Van Alstyne needed one more point.
A hitting error forced the Lady Panthers to try again but Cordie Ford’s attack made it through a block and kept Ponder in it. Harper Mulkey followed with a kill and the Lady Lions were a point from advancing. Van Alstyne survived the initial attempt but an error gave Ponder a second shot. The Lady Lions’ 11th service error of the night gave the Lady Panthers a new life and they took advantage. Welch skied over a block attempt and the Lady Lions made a hitting error to clinch it for Van Alstyne.
“We had the ball a lot where a single error could change the game and we cut down on those errors,” Mendez said. “The girls just executed. We talked about a couple of scouting things strategically that we could take advantage of.”
The Lady Lions showed their mettle with a late push in Game 4 that extended their season. Ponder trailed for almost all of the game but held the lead when it mattered with the final three points.
Van Alstyne jumped out quickly and a 6-0 burst behind Moore gave the Lady Panthers a 9-3 advantage. Ford had a couple of kills during a 4-1 stretch to keep the Lady Lions within striking distance at 11-8.
It proved to be necessary as a 6-1 run from Ponder followed and the Lady Lions were even at 14. The teams traded points before Crawford notched consecutive kills to give Van Alstyne a lead it was trying to coax to the end. The Lady Panthers went up 21-18 on an ace by Sydney Sullivan but the advantage disappeared quickly with three straight points from Ponder.
Welch overpowered a block but Van Alstyne’s ensuing block went wide and the game was tied at 22.
Mulkey landed a kill for the Lady Lions and Sterling Wilkinson put down two aces to force the deciding Game 5.
“You’re always concerned about momentum,” Mendez said.
Game 3 had a similar feel to the second stanza as Van Alstyne looked to be taking control of the match. The Lady Panthers got back-to-back kills from Ingram and Crawford during another fast start — 5-1 — and Ponder was never in position to make a run.
There were four straight points that pushed Van Alstyne’s margin to 12-5 and then a 5-1 stretch bookended by kills from Young and Welch that made it a 20-11 game. Welch finished things off with a kill and the Lady Panthers were in position to close out the match.
Van Alstyne put the disappointment of losing a close opener quickly behind it with a 6-1 start to Game 2 and was never really challenged as the Lady Panthers went on to tie the match.
It hovered around a five-point lead until Van Alstyne had a 6-1 run with Ingram leading the charge at the net to give the Lady Panthers a 19-10 advantage. The margin quickly got into double digits and never dipped below that the rest of the way with Moore, Ingram and Young helping maintain the gap.
Ponder captured Game 1 on a disputed call. Van Alstyne felt its attack at the net was deflected out of bounds off the Lady Lions but the call against the Lady Panthers stood and provided the final point.
Van Alstyne trailed for almost all of the frame, even though the largest lead for either side was three points, before the Lady Panthers went in front for the first time on Welch’s kill for a 14-13 advantage. The sides traded points and then Van Alstyne reeled off three straight, the last two on a block by Ingram and a kill from Young, to hold a 20-18 lead.
Ponder answered with a 3-0 run to take a one-point lead but Van Alstyne jumped ahead twice more, the last on a Young kill to make it 23-22, before the Lady Lions picked up the final three points to claim the stanza.