VAN ALSTYNE — There have been some pressure-packed moments for the Lady Panthers this postseason.
Their first opponent just happened to be the defending champ that had eliminated them a year ago. There were two five-game matches they had to pull out, including the region final.
But Van Alstyne has not faltered in the face of these obstacles, rising to each occasion.
There are two more wins for the Lady Panthers to put into action the words they’ve been saying since off-season workouts.
“It was back in May and when we’d break out (of huddles) it wasn’t ‘VA’ or ‘Lady Panthers,’” Van Alstyne head coach Veronica Mendez said. “We’d say ‘state champs.’ Every time we broke out it was ‘state champs.’”
Playing in the final four for the first time in more than two decades, Van Alstyne (36-4) faces Lexington (34-13) in a Class 3A state semifinal at 1 p.m. on Thursday at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.
“We’re just treating it like any other game,” senior Sydney Ingram said. “Keep doing the things like we’ve been because it’s been working.”
It is the second appearance at the state tournament for the Lady Panthers to go with the semifinalist squad of 1997.
The winner will play either Bushland (46-1) or Vanderbilt Industrial (36-11), which was a semifinalist last season, for the state championship at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Culwell Center.
“It comes down to errors. We both have good hitters,” Mendez said. “At this point everybody’s got skill. Everybody’s got talent. It’s about making the fewest mistakes and being in better condition.”
Last year’s team might have been in position to get this far but the bracket was unkind to the Lady Panthers. They lost in the region quarterfinals against eventual champion Callisburg and finished with a record comparable to this group’s at 33-7.
“For the girls returning it put a fire in their bellies,” Mendez said. “These girls have been preparing and wanting this for a long time.”
Added junior Valerie Young: “I think our chemistry is better. Almost everyone has played together for more than one season. We had the two sophomore middles step right in. They fit in perfect. Our defense has improved so much.”
The Lady Panthers have not been beaten since August, losing back-to-back matches against Royse City and Bonham at the Princeton Tournament, against Melissa in the Denison Tournament championship and then on the road at Gunter.
Despite all the success, Van Alstyne’s spot at state almost never came to fruition. The Lady Panthers dropped the first two games of the Region II final against Gunter in what looked like a repeat of the non-district match the Lady Tigers swept, the last loss before Van Alstyne’s current 18-match winning streak.
“Since Gunter beat us we knew there was a chance we’d see them again,” Ingram said. “We worked hard enough. We knew we had to flip the switch.”
Van Alstyne led for all of Games 3 and 4 before clinching the victory in Game 5. Gunter’s only lead in the final three frames was at 1-0 and after the Lady Tigers rallied to tie it at 11, Van Alstyne notched the final points to pull it out, 20-25, 15-25, 25-18, 25-20, 15-11.
“To come back like that, we had to believe in each other, put trust in each other,” Young said. “We didn’t play timid.”
Micah Welch had 17 kills, 19 assists and 18 digs, Young added 14 kills, 25 digs and 18 assists, Samantha Moore chipped in seven kills and nine blocks, Lindi Boling collected 20 digs to go with seven assists and Darcey Earley contributed 18 digs.
Lexington is like Van Alstyne in that it is also making its second appearance at the state tourney with the first coming more than two decades ago. The program finished as semifinalists in 1990.
The Lady Eagles got off to a slow start, at one point sitting with an 11-10 record, before closing out the season with a 13-1 record in District 19-3A. They beat the fourth seed from their district, Rogers, in four games in the region quarterfinals to reach the region tournament for the first time since 2007.
Lexington advanced to state with an 18-25, 25-23, 25-18, 25-21 victory against West in the Region III final, ending West’s 31-match winning streak.
“They have a couple of tall, powerful girls,” Mendez said. “We rely on our defense and we’re going to have to do a good job of defending their hitters, not just getting the ball up but getting it to a place where we can feed it to our hitters. I think our girls are ready to take that challenge.”