GARLAND — In a sport where height usually rules, the Van Alstyne Lady Panthers are proving good things come in small packages.
The roster may not be blessed with any six-footers but it does have a bevy of talent and once again produced a balanced attack to fell a giant on the other side of the net.
“We don’t have the luxury of having one power hitter,” Van Alstyne head coach Veronica Mendez said. “We have to use decoys. We have to use every hitter at the net. The setters have to work really, really hard.”
Despite the perceived disadvantage at the net, the Lady Panthers finished with the advantage on the scoreboard, 12-25, 25-19, 25-14, 25-19, over Lexington in a Class 3A state semifinal at the Curtis Culwell Center.
Added Valerie Young, who led the way with 10 kills to go with 13 assists, 10 digs and four aces: “It puts us at an advantage because we can spread the floor.”
Van Alstyne (37-4) will face Vanderbilt Industrial (37-11), which won 12-25, 25-21, 25-22, 15-25, 15-13 against Bushland (46-2), for the state championship at 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Culwell Center.
Micah Welch added eight kills, 15 assists and nine digs, Janessa Crawford put down seven kills, Samantha Moore totaled six kills and four blocks, Sydney Ingram chipped in five kills and Lindi Boling collected 24 digs for the Lady Panthers, who will play in the title match for the first time after surpassing the 1997 semifinalists with the best season in program history.
“It’s going to be super exciting,” Welch said.
Shelby Ray, the tallest player in the match at 6-1, had 18 kills and 10 digs and Macy Sweat put down nine kills, for Lexington (34-14), which was at the state tourney for the first time since 1990. But the Lady Eagles received only nine kills from the rest of the team with no one earning more than two. Kadence Looper handed out 32 assists and Grace Patschke collected 20 digs.
The Lady Panthers, who have won 19 straight matches, didn’t look back after taking a 3-2 lead in Game 4. Lexington led twice early but Van Alstyne avoided a deciding fifth frame. There was a 5-0 burst led by Hannah Hemphill and Ingram that more than doubled the advantage to 11-5. When the Lady Eagles tried to extend the match and pulled within three, Welch put down a kill to start a stretch where the Lady Panthers gradually increased the lead their lead to 21-14 and were then counting down the points to advancing.
Van Alstyne never trailed in a Game 3 which was tied three times, the last at five. It was from that point the Lady Panthers went on a 9-0 run with the first half coming on Lexington attack errors and the second half began with kills from Welch and Crawford sandwiched around an ace by Young.
The lead hit double digits for the first time at 17-7 and Van Alstyne kept the Lady Eagles at arm’s length the rest of the game — Lexington never got closer than nine points before Sydney Sullivan’s ace punctuated the game and put the Lady Panthers in position to move on.
“Our strength this year has been our tenacity,” Mendez said. “That competitive spirit gets us through.”
The Lady Panthers evened the match with an 8-0 run in Game 2 which gave them the lead for good.
Lexington held the early advantage and was up by four — 7-4 — before Van Alstyne took control with the game-changing surge.
It started on a service error and Welch followed with a block and a kill. The Lady Eagles contributed to the momentum by committing three attack errors and Valerie Young put down an ace to stretch the lead to 11-7.
Lexington was able to reset following a timeout and pulled within two at 16-14. But the Lady Panthers weathered the storm with a 4-0 burst ended by an ace from Welch and a kill from Young.
The Lady Eagles made one final charge to trim the margin to three at 20-17 but Young and Moore combined on a block and Young put down a kill to provide the cushion Van Alstyne needed to square the match.
“We definitely started slow and got the jitters out,” Mendez said. “We were able to take care of business after that.”
Van Alstyne’s only lead in Game 1 came on the opening point thanks to a Lexington attack error. The Lady Panthers were able to hang close and cut the deficit to one twice, the last at 8-7 on an ace by Sullivan.
The Lady Eagles broke things open thanks to a 7-0 run with five of the points coming on VA errors, along with a kill from Looper and Kynley Hurst’s ace.
Van Alstyne wasn’t able to get back into it, earning consecutive points just once the rest of the way on back-to-back kills from Young to make it a 21-12 margin before the Lady Eagles closed out Game 1.
Lexington notched 10 kills in the first frame — as opposed to 26 combined in the final three — and the Lady Eagles also put down three aces. Van Alstyne had a negative hitting percentage in the game with eight attack errors.
“At the beginning they seemed just a bit out of whack,” Lexington head coach Kevin Patschke said. “They gained a little confidence and we lost ours.”