Gunter's run ends in semifinals

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter's Jacee Childers sets the ball during the Lady Tigers' state semifinal match against Bushland in Vernon.

VERNON — It was a different feeling when the Lady Tigers walked off the court for the final time. They had made history by getting here but they also knew they were one match short of where they wanted to be: playing for a championship.

Without losing anyone from last season’s roster, Gunter waited a whole year to have a third crack at making the state tournament. Now the interminable delay will set in for the large group hoping to return to state after Bushland defeated the Lady Tigers, 25-16, 25-18, 23-25, 25-22, in a Class 3A semifinal match.

The senior class of Nyah Ingram, Lakin Satre, Bethany Gilbreath, Kinzee Hamilton and Jacee Childers leaves with nearly 150 victories and added one more piece to their legacy with the program’s first trip to the final four.

“They played their hearts out,” Gunter head coach Katelyn Gill said. “Our seniors led the way. I’m very proud of all of them.”

Bushland (31-2) will face Goliad, which beat East Bernard in the other semifinal, for the state championship at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.

Rayanna Mauldin had 15 kills, Hanna Rubis added 14 kills, Shae Pruiett and Gilbreath each chipped in seven kills, Childers handed out 46 assists to go with seven digs and Ingram collected 20 digs for Gunter (29-4).

“We’re excited about next year with what we have coming back,” Gill said. “There’s a lot to be learned from all this. Teams are out for blood. We’ve got to execute on the biggest stage from the jump.”

Kinley Rudder and Hallie Conklin led they way for Bushland — which has won 20 straight and had not lost a game in more than six weeks, having earned 16 straight sweeps. The Lady Falcons are going for their fifth title and first since 2016. There were playing in their ninth semifinal and were back here after losing in five against eventual champion Vanderbilt Industrial.

“They had a super bitter taste in their mouth from last year,” Gill said. "You could see that.”

Both teams had yet to lose against a 3A opponent. Bushland’s only losses are to 4A Canyon and Hereford while Gunter’s three losses coming in were against a pair of 4A state semifinalists in Decatur and Kennedale and defending 5A champ and undefeated Lovejoy.

The Lady Falcons seemed a bit stunned when they didn’t come away with a sweep. Gunter battled to pull out the third game and got off to a 4-1 start in Game 4 that brought about visions of the match possibly going the distance. Bushland eventually took a lead for the first time at 7-6 and then a 5-0 burst started by Rudder and ended by Conklin provided a cushion at 12-7.

Bushland tried to widen the margin but the Lady Tigers stuck around. They got within four points five times, the last when saving match point at 24-20 on a Mauldin kill. Then Pruiett and Miranda Putnicki followed with blocks to push Gunter a little bit closer.

But the margin for error was to slim to overcome and Rudder put down one final kill to clinch the match.

“It was a good fight,” Gill said. “It was a little too late.”

The Lady Tigers didn’t go quietly after dropping the first two games. Game 3 was nip-and-tuck through the first couple dozen points — it was all square at 11 before Bushland notched the next three. A quick timeout settled down the Lady Tigers and they came out with a 5-0 run bookended by Putnicki kills and in the middle was a Briley Singleton ace.

Bushland regained the lead at 19-18 on a Conklin kill and a Taryn Shultz block. The teams traded points until Gunter ended up in front at 21-20 and Mauldin and Rubis helped the Lady Tigers extend the match.

Gunter had a chance to pull out Game 2 but the Lady Falcons held them off. The Lady Tigers were in front early but Bushland was ahead to stay at 6-5. Kaela Neie’s kill gave the Lady Falcons a 19-12 advantage before Gunter chipped away at the deficit. Rubis landed a kill to make it 20-16 and that was as close as the Lady Tigers had been since it was 12-8.

Mauldin and Rubis each had kills to make it a three-point deficit twice, the last at 21-18, but Bushland closed the game on a 4-0 run to take the 2-0 lead.

In Game 1, the Lady Tigers led for the opening three points and then chased Bushland the rest of the frame. Gunter tied it twice, at five and seven, but could never mount a consistent push. Bushland didn’t have a major run beyond a 5-1 burst which turned a 13-9 advantage into a 18-10 score and the Lady Tigers never threatened the rest of the stanza.

State semifinals

Class 3A

Bushland                3

Gunter                    1