Lady Panthers win seventh straight
By Scott Akanewich
Certainly, they weren’t all going to be easy.
But, with the way the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill had reeled off six straight victories over the past three weeks, it seemed as if it might be.
However, after winning the opening set in their home match against Stephenville on Tuesday, the visitors came back to win the second before the Lady Panthers won the final two stanzas in a 3-1 (25-17, 17-25, 25-18, 25-19) thriller which was hard-fought throughout.
Kindsee Escamilla led Liberty Hill with 15 kills, while senior Ashley Nelson added 11 in a win which was much-needed due to its degree of difficulty, said Lady Panthers head coach Gretchen Peterson.
“We needed to have have a couple four or five-set matches just to know we can pull through and get a win,” she said. “I was proud of the girls because they found ways to get points when we needed them.”
Emma Becker led the home side with 22 assists, but it was her reckless abandon which inspired her teammates as time and again she threw herself to the floor in pursuit of loose balls to keep plays alive and repelled rockets off the swings of the Honeybees’ hitters.
Not to be outdone was fellow sophomore setter Emma Parsons, who nearly matched Becker’s assists total with 21 helpers of her own.
Liberty Hill jumped out quickly on its home court in the first set, building an early advantage to as much as 16-5 on the strength of three kills by Escamilla and a pair of blocks by Ailie Hair.
But, the visitors came back and made a contest of it, closing to 20-15 before the Lady Panthers closed it out with the help of kills from Escamilla, Emily Huppee, Hair and Becker.
Stephenville, who entered the match with a 21-10 record, built on what positive momentum they had gained by fighting back in the first and got off to a fast start in the second set, gaining a lead they would not relinquish as the Lady Panthers could only manage to level the score at 8-8 before the Honeybees pulled away to even the match at one set apiece.
In the third, Liberty Hill led the entire way, including a Becker face-first sprawl to save a ball from going out-of-bounds and three consecutive aces by Haley Kuhlmann before Lilli Wilkins finished off the set with a thunderous kill.
The fourth and final set was tight from the outset, as momentum swung back and forth like a Purple-and-Gold pendulum, with the lead trading hands on several occasionsand the teams never being more than two points apart with the Lady Panthers ahead 16-14, which was when Wilkins really stamped her authority on the proceedings.
The junior middle blocker won four consecutive points for the Panthers with a pair of blocks and two kills, one of them being volleyball’s version of the give-and-go, as she bumped the ball to Becker, who then floated a perfect serve right into Wilkins’ wheelhouse before she pounded it home.
By the end of Wilkins’ personal rampage, the Lady Panthers were ahead, 22-14 and closed the deal with a Hair hammer blow to end the match.
Wilkins also led Liberty Hill with five blocks, as Huppee added three. Kuhlmann served six aces, including back-to-back bombs in the decisive fourth set and also led with 14 digs, while Nelson added 12 and Escamilla contributing three aces to the cause.
Wilkins was quick to credit her sisters-in-arms for her ability to have such a profound influence.
“I rely on my teammates a lot,” she said. “It’s great we were able to come together and win.”
She also said it was traffic control from her teammates on the back row which helped her pick out weaknesses in the Stephenville defense.
“Not only do their passes set me up, but we’re always talking even while the play is going on when they see open spots in the defense, like when a player is cheating to one side or the other,” said Wilkins. “It’s a lot about trusting one another.”
Wilkins also praised the visitors in the amount of intensity they brought to the floor.
“They’re some of our biggest competition,” she said. “They bring out a lot of fight in us, but we pushed back harder and came out on top.”
According to Peterson, Wilkins is one of the critical cogs she relies on to come off the bench in crucial situations.
“It’s a great thing to have a player like Lilli I can bring in to influence a match,” said Peterson. “We noticed their hitters were leaving her alone, so we wanted to get her the ball.”
Peterson also said the Honeybees were a bit like looking at her own squad in a mirror.
“They have some dynamic hitters and their passing is good,” she said. “They’re almost the exact same team as us.”
Peterson also singled out Hair, Huppee and Kuhlmann for what each player contributed to the contest.
“I thought Ailie was really smart with the ball and Emily had some big swings for us at important times,” she said. “Also, Haley had a great night on the service line.”
Liberty Hill (25-13) will next visit Gatesville on Sept. 20 before returning home to welcome Crawford on Sept. 24.