MIDLOTHIAN — It was the worst possible place to be considering the stakes. The Van Alstyne Lady Panthers had lost the first two games against the Gunter Lady Tigers with a trip to the state tournament on the line.
“We talked about having to focus on each set and each point,” senior outside hitter Micah Welch said. “Not what came before or what would come after.”
On the verge of being swept, the Lady Panthers treated the next game like it was their last. And then there was another one to play. And then another.
By the time the match was over, Gunter had led for just a single point in that stretch as Van Alstyne stormed back for a 20-25, 15-25, 25-18, 25-20, 15-11 victory in the Class 3A Region II final at Midlothian High School.
“Those are just uncoachable things,” Lady Panthers head coach Veronica Mendez said about the rally. “I attribute that to tough kids. They’re so competitive once they got calm and in a groove there was no stopping them.”
Van Alstyne (36-4) advances to the 3A state tournament for the first time since 1997 and will play in a semifinal at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. on Thursday against an opponent to be determined at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. The other qualifiers are Bushland, Lexington and Vanderbilt Industrial, which was a state semifinalist last season.
“I’m so happy, it feels surreal,” Welch said. “We talked about it and now it’s a reality.”
Added senior libero Lindi Boling: “There’s so many emotions. I was crying. I was laughing. I was smiling. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Welch had 17 kills, 19 assists and 18 digs, Valerie Young added 14 kills, 25 digs amd 18 assists, Samantha Moore chipped in seven kills and nine blocks, Boling collected 20 digs to go with seven assists, Darcey Earley contributed 18 digs Janessa Crawford put down six kills, Sydney Ingram finished with five kills and 13 digs for the Lady Panthers.
It was the second straight season Gunter (35-12), which won five more games than a year ago, lost in the region final. Callisburg kept the Lady Tigers from making their first state tourney appearance on the way to being the eventual state champ.
Gunter was pushed to a deciding fifth game for the third time this postseason but neither of them unfolded like this one did.
The first point of Game 5 was the only time the Lady Tigers were in front over the final three frames. Van Alstyne went up 4-2 and then 8-5 when Welch put down a kill. Lakin Satre pulled Gunter within one at 8-7 before VA notched the next two points, led 10-7 and forced a Gunter timeout.
It was the Lady Panthers’ turn to halt the action when Gunter’s 3-0 spurt with the last two points coming on Bethany Gilbreath kills, tied the score at 11.
“I was questioning when I needed to call a timeout,” Mendez said. “Once we earned those two points to go up 13-11 there was no doubt.”
Samantha Moore’s kill provided the point to get Van Alstyne to that moment and a pair of hitting errors by Gunter sent the Lady Panthers into a celebration with the victory.
The start to Game 4 was much like the third stanza. The Lady Panthers opened with six straight points, the last coming on a Welch ace after Valerie Young and Moore attacked at the net.
Gunter again began the process of trying to chase VA down. The Lady Tigers made it a four-point margin (11-7) before Van Alstyne pumped it back up to seven at 17-10.
One final chance to avoid going to Game 5 came up short. Gilbreath and Rayanna Mauldin had consecutive kills and Gunter trailed, 23-20. Welch answered with a kill and a hitting error by the Lady Tigers squared the match.
Van Alstyne’s first step to extending the match came in Game 3. The Lady Panthers notched the first five points as part of a 6-1 start, taking advantage of several Gunter errors.
The lead stretched to seven at the midway points before Gunter tried to chip away. The Lady Tigers were able to get it down to four at 17-13 but Van Alstyne had an answer every time and the sides traded the next 11 points. Gunter would get within four and VA was back up five until the penultimate point.
The Lady Tigers went up 2-0 after starting Game 2 by earning the first six points and holding a 9-1 advantage. Gilbreath powered the run early and Olivia Eft did the damage late.
Van Alstyne tried to get back into it but when Welch landed a kill to make it a six-point margin (15-9), Gunter put together a pair of mini-runs totaling 7-0 to get the lead back to double digits.
The teams opened the match with some nervous moments. Gunter took advantage first and then Van Alstyne took a lead that stood at 8-5. But the last time the Lady Panthers led in the frame was at 11-10 because Gunter used a 7-1 run powered by Shae Pruiett and Mauldin for a 17-12 advantage.
Gunter stayed in front and the closest Van Alstyne could get was at 21-18 on an ace by Moore before Satre clinched it with a kill.
“I felt like we had to work together as a team — at the beginning we were trying to do everything by ourselves,” Boling said.
The teams met for a non-district contest in late August at Gunter and the Lady Tigers came away with a 25-23, 25-18, 25-17 victory. Since then Van Alstyne has been on an 18-match winning streak and will carry that into the final four.
“That’s what we were focused on and I think it worked against us. We wanted revenge,” Welch said. “We knew we had to come out and play our game with our energy.”
In the region semifinals, Gunter advanced with a 25-21, 25-15, 25-22 against Tatum.
Tatum (26-11) was in the region semifinals for the first time since 2007.
Van Alstyne won its region semifinal with a 25-19, 23-25, 25-17, 25-11 win against Prairiland.
Young had 15 kills, 19 assists, 15 digs and three blocks, Welch added 12 kills, 19 assists and 20 digs, Boling collected 54 digs, Moore totaled seven kills and five blocks, Janessa Crawford chipped in six kills and four digs and Sydney Sullivan finished with 13 digs for the Lady Panthers.
Prairiland (24-7) was in the region semifinals for the first time since 2004.