WAXAHACHIE — Fans painted the stands blue and green Tuesday at J.W. Williams Gymnasium for the annual Lady Panther-Lady Indian rivalry that included massive momentum swings and gutsy game-saving digs.
The younger Panthers and first-year head coach Mary Malone, however, gave the Texas Girls Coaches Association No. 6 Lady Indians a fight they hadn't seen since their matchup with current District 15-5A fourth place team Forney High School on Sept. 6.
"That was a really good team. They were scrappy and very good defensively," said Sandy Faussett, the Lady Indians head volleyball coach. "It was a fun, hard fought match with long rallies. Both teams were working hard to keep the ball off the floor and at one point, it became a test of wills."
Midlothian High School (16-11, 1-1 in District 10-5A) was riding the momentum of back-to-back wins against Naaman Forest and Lancaster High Schools while
Waxahachie High School (26-8, 2-0 in District 10-5A) entered the game winners of seven of their last 10 games.
The score swung from 3-1 to 5-3 and from 10-8 to 16-12 early in the first set and was capitalized by key blocks by WHS and MHS sophomores Essence Clerkley and Aliyah Muhammad and crucial kills by Lady Indian sophomore Audrey Nalls and Lady Panther senior and sophomore Sydney Little and Samantha Rodgers.
The defensive performances of Lowe (23 digs), Little (22 digs), Kelby Buchanan (16 digs) and Destiny Leatherwood (18 digs) helped neutralize the Lady Indians' offensive weapons and challenge one of the best teams in the state.
The Lady Indians won the first set 25-17 behind two straight points off Nalls' serve and a match-point kill from senior Madelyn Ward.
MHS didn't play from the same sheet of music during the second, though. It took an early 5-1 lead and parlayed that momentum into a 25-20 second set, match-tying finish after Little landed more than five kills in Indian territory and Lowe's selfless digs saved a handful of kills by Nalls, Ward and Shelby Martin.
"All in all, I'm happy about their potential and the way they played," Malone said. "A lot of things we've been working on, we did very well. They followed the game plan, we just had too many dips in our roller coaster ride."
The turning point of the match — punctuated by an early 4-0 lead and back-to-back kills by high-flying Lady Indian Clerkley — came during the third set and after the Lady Panthers had first climbed back from a six-point deficit and then tied the score at 11. Despite three extended rallies that featured more than seven digs by each team, the Indians took the third set 25-17.
Despite several rally-sparking digs by both Lowe and junior setter Kamryn Owen and a pair of Owen-to-Rodgers back-set kills that helped close the points gap to three, the Lady Indians closed the fourth and final set 25-14 on an 8-3 run.
Little (19) and Rodgers (8) led in kills and Owen (38) outpaced the combination of Shelby Martin (20) and Taylor Stoops (15) in assists.
MHS may not have sealed a second district victory, but the young, upstart team's pushing of Waxahachie to four sets marked only the 12th time the Lady Indians have been forced into extra sets 12 times this season. Their record is 8-4 in those situations.
WHS' victory puts the varsity volleyball team in contention for first place in the district and drops Midlothian to No. 3, leaving only Waxahachie and Mansfield Legacy — which beat Red Oak High School 3-2 on Sept. 9 — as the lone undefeated teams in 10-5A.
"We let the game slip away from us during the third set, but we are going to take the knowledge that we have a lot of potential and that obviously we can do it," Malone said. "They were highly mentally invested in that second set and they just needed a little more time to recover. We just have to embrace the idea that even though we believe in ourselves, it's going to be work."
The Lady Panthers will face 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-10 twin towers Janelle Fitzgerald and Keanu Strange, Head Coach Amanda Shingleton and the Mansfield Legacy High School Lady Broncos at 5:30 p.m. Friday at MHS Arena.
— Marcus is the sports editor for both the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI. Contact the sports desk at 469-517-1456 and on Twitter by using #WDLsports and #MirrorSportsNB in tweets!