Bushland keeps state title just out of Gunter's reach

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter's Shae Pruiett (2) and Hanna Rubis attempt to block Bushland's Abby Howell in the Class 3A state championship match at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.

GARLAND – The Lady Tigers were going to fight.

It was evident because of the way they took the opening frame. It seemed obvious with all of the game points they staved off.

A state championship was on the line and Gunter was trying to win its first, and get a little revenge in the process.

But the Bushland Falcons were defending champions for a reason and when the two best teams in the state met for the third time in a year, the little things end up being the difference.

And so the best season in Gunter history came up just short of a title as Bushland maintained its hold on the crown with a 24-26, 25-21, 25-23, 25-23 victory over the Lady Tigers in the Class 3A state final at the Curtis Culwell Center.

“I’m extremely proud my kids and the way the fight always, especially today,” Gunter head coach Katelyn Gill said. “We never stopped fighting, which is a key characteristic about this group.”

Rayanna Mauldin totaled 15 kills and 17 digs, Hanna Rubis added 13 kills, Shae Pruiett chipped in seven kills, 23 assists and 13 digs, Miranda Putnicki and Abby Elmore finished with six kills apiece, Adilynn Henry handed out 23 assists to go with 10 digs and Briley Singleton collected 25 digs for Gunter (37-8), which set a school record in victories and had its first appearance in the title match.

Pruiett, Mauldin and Rubis were named to the 3A all-state tournament team.

The Lady Tigers have been eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual state champion in three of the past four seasons with the other time being to the state runner-up.

“Every year it’s little steps, chipping away,” Gill said. “We learn something new every time. We’ll take a lot away from this as well. We’re definitely learning every year as we go and very, very proud these girls want to keep it as a very high-caliber program where we are in the conversation for a state title.”

Emma Troxell had 17 kills and was named the Most Valuable Player, Kaela Neie added 16 kills, Abby Howell totaled 13 kills, Madyson Eberly finished with 11 kills, Logan Culpepper handed out 28 assists and Jaycee Adams collected 22 digs for Bushland (35-5), which earned its third title in six seasons and sixth overall.

“They served us well so they were able to take us out of system a little bit more than other teams have,” Gill said. “That’s something not a lot of people have been able to do.”

The Lady Falcons also won in four games when the teams met in the semifinals last year and picked up a 2-1 victory against Gunter in the Glen Rose Tournament back in August.

“That Gunter team was outstanding,” Bushland head coach Jason Culpepper said. “When we played Gunter last year they had an entirely different team. When we played them earlier this year they were running a totally different offense. Coach Gill did an outstanding job with them.”

Gunter pulled out Game 1 by closing on a 7-1 run after Bushland had taken a 23-19 advantage with a combined block by Eberly and Neie.

Aubrey Walton and Pruiett had kills which started a 5-0 run and put the Lady Tigers a point away from clinching the opener. Neie tied the score at 24 with a kill but the Lady Falcons committed a pair of hitting errors to end the game and Gunter escaped with the 26-24 win. Seven different Lady Tigers had kills during Game 1.

Bushland jumped in front to open the match before Gunter held a 7-6 lead. After Elmore and Rubis combined on a block to tie the score at nine, Bushland went up 12-10 behind a couple of kills from Neie. Then the Lady Tigers were back ahead, although neither side would build a margin larger than two points until the Lady Falcons used a 6-0 run, capped on an Adams ace, to take a 20-16 lead.

From that point it looked as if Bushland was going to finish off the frame, especially when it got two points away and was up by four. But Gunter showed its mettle then and then rest of the way.

The Lady Tigers carried over the momentum into Game 2 as Putnicki had consecutive kills for a 4-1 advantage. Bushland responded with an 8-1 surge to take the lead for the first time and the Lady Falcons held it until Gunter tied the score at 15.

Rubis had two straight kills to put the Lady Tigers in front at 19-18 – their first lead in Game 2 since 5-4 – and Gunter was up 20-19 following a service error. This time Bushland finished off the stanza with a major push, getting four straight points for a lead it wouldn’t give back like it did in the opener.

A pivotal Game 3 turned on a couple of plays late.

Bushland had established itself early with a 6-1 advantage for a 10-5 lead following an ace by Logan Culpepper. The Lady Tigers ripped off five straight points to tie the score at 11 and Gunter took its first lead at 13-12. Four times the Lady Tigers went up by two points, the last at 18-16 on a kill from Putnicki, but could never increase the margin wider than that.

A 5-1 swing by the Lady Falcons ended up as the difference. Gunter pulled within a point four times – the last the second of two game points fended off on a Putnicki kill. Troxell was able to land a kill just inside the end line to clinch the game instead of it being tied at 24.

Bushland never trailed in Game 4 but again Gunter had its changes. The Lady Falcons were up 9-5, only for the Lady Tigers to get four straight points and tie it at nine on a Pruiett kill. The score was tied for the last time at 16 before Howell bookended a 4-0 spurt with kills. The final charge by Gunter saw Pruiett and Putnicki kills trim the deficit to 23-21 and again the Lady Tigers avoided a pair of game points and were down 24-23 when their attempt at the net to keep the ball alive came up short and ended the match.

“All the sets were close,” Gill said. “We had some bad knocks down the stretch.”