LHHS volleyball to be challenged like never before

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By Scott Akanewich

If Liberty Hill’s district volleyball opener against Rouse was any indication of how this season is going to pan out, it should be one ferocious battle, indeed.

After losing the first two sets against the Raiders, the Lady Panthers stormed back to force a decisive fifth set, before going down to defeat by a score of 3-2 (20-25, 23-25, 25-23, 25-20, 12-15).

To properly put the result into perspective, one must consider the three sets Liberty Hill lost in the match were three more than they dropped during the entire district schedule last season – their final campaign as a Class 4A team.

This season – their maiden voyage in Class 5A waters – has provided an altogether different, much more difficult challenge for head coach Gretchen Peterson’s club, something the veteran bench boss is well aware of as she and her squad move forward.

“We know every match is going to be a big one,” she said. “The bar has been raised, so our girls have to be willing to get after it.”

According to Peterson, her team’s job has been made even more rugged due to the fact the Lady Panthers are the latest arrivals in District 25.

“I think teams are going to play a little different against us because we’re the new kid in town,” said Peterson. “All the of programs in our district are strong and the level of expectation is so much higher for everyone, so we know every team is going to play their best against us.”

Such was the case against Rouse, who was 34-10 overall last season, with a 12-0 district mark and advanced to the regional semifinals, but that kind of challenge on a regular basis – even when it ends in a loss — is exactly what her team needs to ready them for the postseason after the disappointment of last year’s second-round playoff defeat, she said.

“In a weird way, we’re more confident than we were last year,” said Peterson. “We always get better through adversity, so it’s helped us a great deal.”

Previous to the Rouse match, the Lady Panthers also lost to Brenham – the state’s No. 2-ranked team in Class 5A – 3-0 (23-25, 23-25, 24-26) and despite the fact it was a straight-sets defeat, the margin in each set was as close as possible, which is something a positive can be gleaned from, she said.

“I don’t think our girls knew how good Brenham was,” said Peterson. “But, every loss is an opportunity to get better.”

The last time Liberty Hill lost back-to-back, best-of-five matches were the final two contests of the 2018 season, when they were defeated by Georgetown in a playoff warm-up match before losing to Fredericksburg in the opening round of the postseason.

However, it’s certainly not all doom-and-gloom for the Lady Panthers, by any means, said junior setter Emma Becker.

“We understand it’s not going to be like last year anymore,” said Becker, who leads Liberty Hill this season in kills (72) and is tied with teammate Ailie Hair with 20 blocks. “But, I think as long as we keep getting better, we won’t be losing much.”

Sophomore outside hitter Kaileigh Truslow has burst onto the varsity scene this season and is currently second on the team in kills (65) and first in aces (25), providing Peterson with some potent punch on the front line, including a 23-kill performance in the Rouse match.

Despite being without starters and seniors Kindsee Escamilla and Lilli Wilkins since Sept. 19, the Lady Panthers have continued to fire on all cylinders due to the contributions of some fresh faces in junior middle blocker Bailey Becker and outside hitter Reese Williams, as well as a familiar one in senior outside hitter Ashleigh Dubbs, who have all filled in more-than-capably – a fact not
lost on Peterson.

“We didn’t drop off because we have a lot of depth on our roster,” she said. “Ashleigh (Dubbs) has stepped up really nicely for us – players like her and Bailey (Becker) have never backed away and done a great job – they have the experience to understand what it takes to win matches – it’s a really good feeling to know everyone can step up when we need them to.”

In close contests such as the Rouse match, even the slightest of miscues can be costly, which means attention-to-detail is the order of the day when practice rolls around, said Peterson.

“For example, today we worked on serve-receive and defense – these are the things that hurt us against Rouse,” she said. “We needed to make fewer errors, but once our setters found their rhythm with the hitters, we played with more confidence. Defensively, we were out of position at times, so we need to make better reads.”

All part of the unforgiving competitive landscape the Lady Panthers now find themselves traversing – one which is only beginning – but Peterson is confident her team will come out better for it, she said.

“If everything was easy, you wouldn’t learn anything,” she said. “We’ll be fine – we’re certainly not dreading playing Rouse again – we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

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