Rowley, Hair lead win over Cedar Park
By Scott Akanewich
CEDAR PARK — Last season, Liberty Hill’s dramatic, five-set road victory against new district rivals Cedar Park was the Lady Panthers’ official coming-out party as a Class 5A squad – a match that saw the upstart visitors win the opening two sets, before losing the next two and eventually prevailing in a five-set thriller.
So, it should be no surprise after beginning this season’s district campaign with a 4-1 mark – with the only defeat coming at the hands of No. 4 Rouse – head coach Gretchen Peterson’s side would once again provide another memorable victory in the same building in beating the Timberwolves, 3-1 (21-25, 26-24, 25-21, 29-27).
The only difference this time around was the match only required four sets to be decided, as Liberty Hill stormed back to win three consecutive stanzas after dropping the first.
Senior middle blocker Ailie Hair said victory over Cedar Park in yet another hotly-contested match will only fuel the fire between the two teams.
“I think there’s a certain chemistry when we play them,” said Hair, who had 11 kills, seven blocks and three aces on the evening. “We really want to beat them and they really want to beat us.”
At the outset, it looked as if the hosts would get their way in the first set, which saw the Lady Panthers a bit lethargic despite the fact they remained within striking distance of the Timberwolves throughout.
Hair hammered a pair of kills early on before Maddi Rowley and Morgan Poulain each picked up a pair, but Cedar Park eventually outlasted the visitors in claiming the set victory.
According to Peterson, her club’s sluggish start to the match is indicative of how they’ve come out on several occasions this season, with the reason why remaining a mystery.
“We definitely need to get out of that trend,” said Peterson. “I don’t know why it’s happening.”
In the second set, Gigi Mason made her first appearance of the night and the sophomore immediately delivered with a kill, which was followed by another from Hair and a block by Emma Parsons to take an early advantage.
But, that lead was wiped out as Cedar Park went on a run in building one of its own, which grew to as much as 15-11 midway through the set.
However, with Liberty Hill trailing by two points at 15-12, Hair blocked shots on back-to-back points right before Rowley pounded a winner, which was followed by a Hair ace to even up the set at 16-16.
From that point, the teams battled back-and-forth until the Timberwolves were one point from going up 2-0 in sets at 24-23 when a call which would’ve done just that was reversed in the Lady Panthers’ favor after it was erroneously determined the visitors had touched the ball four times before returning it back over the net on the decisive point.
Following the reversal, Bailey Becker and Hair both served aces to close out the stanza in swiping the set victory in a sequence which Peterson said reversed the fortunes of both teams.
“It was a huge momentum swing,” she said. “Officials have a tough job, but I think it was the right call – although things like that can go either way, so it’s about how you respond.”
Although initially as the third set got underway, it certainly didn’t seem as if Cedar Park had been at all rattled by the chain of events, as they got out to a 7-2 lead early on.
But, it was Rowley who took matters into her own hands at that point by providing a pair of kills and back-to-back aces sandwiched around a pair of blocks and a kill by Becker as the Lady Panthers began to establish a dominance at the net which would ultimately lead to victory.
Brooklyn Escobar served an ace, but the Timberwolves immediately followed with a 5-0 run to go ahead 16-14, but after Rowley had put Liberty Hill back on top at 17-16, it was Hair who closed out the set with a block and another pair of kills.
Hair said as she continued to heat up, the Cedar Park defense shifted its focal point to shutting her down, which created opportunities for the likes of Becker, Poulain and Mason.
“When the other team is worried about my hitting and shift their double-block to me, it opens up single blocks for my teammates,” she said. “So, it really helped everybody.”
Peterson praised Hair’s defensive prowess throughout the match.
“Defensively was where Ailie really stepped up,” she said. “She set the block really well and got a lot of points that way, which opened up things for Gigi (Mason), Morgan (Poulain), Emma (Parsons) and Bailey (Becker) to get touches on the ball. Our defense made our offense, which is phenomenal for that to happen.”
However, despite now being down 2-1 in sets, Cedar Park was still undaunted as the fourth set began and it took all Liberty Hill could muster to hold off the hosts.
Hair collected two more kills and an ace at the outset, which was followed by a Rowley kill and a Mason block, but then it was the Division I-bound Hair who refused to let Liberty Hill lose on this night.
Another pair of blocks for the future Lamar University player was followed by three from Parsons, before Rowley put the Lady Panthers a point away from victory at 24-23.
But, once again, the Timberwolves gamely fought back and actually led 25-24 after a 6-2 run which extended the stanza into extra points.
However, it was Hair who again came to the rescue with yet another pair of kills to seal the deal and in the process send a message to the rest of the district – as well as the Timberwolves, she said.
“This is a big win,” said Hair. “Because Cedar Park is one of the teams we know is going to be a challenge to beat.”
As the temperature of the match reached a fever-pitch level and the net play got more and more fierce, Hair was able to properly channel her emotions into positive results, said Peterson.
“Ailie recognizes now at times like that she just needs to take a deep breath,” she said. “If all she does is her best, that’s still going to be pretty good.”
Rowley led the Lady Panthers with 15 kills and 21 digs, while Parsons had 28 assists and 13 digs, with Mason blocking four shots and Becker adding three aces.
Liberty Hill (31-8, 5-1) will next host Marble Falls on Oct. 1 before beginning the second round of the district schedule at Rouse on Oct. 5.
Liberty Hill 3, Georgetown 1
Hair led the Lady Panthers with 18 kills in Liberty Hill’s 3-1 (23-25, 25-18, 25-21, 25-23) home victory over Georgetown.
Kealy Dirner added 12 kills, eight aces and 20 digs in the match to go with 56 assists and four aces for Carson Glenn and 29 digs from Haley Kuhlmann, while Hair, Becker, Rowley and Poulain all blocked a shot each in the win.