The start of the playoffs for UIL volleyball beckons more than a month away, but the Gatesville Hornets and the Lorena Lady Leopards gave their fans a sneak peek on Tuesday night.

In a good, old-fashioned, knock-down, drag-out spike swapper, No. 23 Lorena outlasted its longtime district rival Gatesville in a five-set marathon, 25-14, 23-25, 23-25, 25-21, 15-10, at the LHS Gym. The Lady Leopards (27-6 overall, 5-0 in District 17-4A) stayed perfect in district with their seventh straight win overall, but the perennial playoff contender Hornets made them log some serious overtime for the victory.

Lorena coach Kari Sowders said that she felt like her team’s senior leaders — players like Maddie Miller, Bailey Allison and Heidi Scarborough — helped calm their teammates’ nerves.

“One thing that we have going for us this year is that we know how to battle back,” Sowders said. “We’ve got a large group of seniors who have been around for a while, couple of them for four years. So they just know how to keep going when we’re down. They have a goal to win district and they saw it and weren’t going to let go of it.”

Gatesville (25-8, 4-2) claimed the second and third sets after dropping the opener, and held a 16-15 lead at one point in the fourth. Even though the Hornets weren’t able to close down Lorena and garner a road victory, Gatesville coach Rickey Phillips said it was an outcome from which his team will learn.

“I just told our kids that if we’ll go play the rest of the season the way we played most of tonight, we’ll be around a long time in November,” Phillips said. “We had some lulls in there, we got a little tired. But, to me, this was an old-school Gatesville-Lorena match, like it used to be a few years ago.

“It’s what you expect. You come in here, you know it’s going to be a war, and it was. Two good teams going at it. We did a lot of good things, they just made more plays down the stretch than we did tonight.”

Lorena’s late-match levitation was heavily fueled by junior outside hitter Mallory Ross, who ripped a team-best 19 kills. A frequent flier, Ross soared for several key spikes late in the match, including a hammering cross-court winner that gave the Lady Leopards a 25-21 win in the fourth set.

“Mallory has definitely come along,” Sowders said. “She kind of handled the game for us. I knew at the end of the fourth set, I said, ‘You’ve got to get the ball to her. Let’s finish it out.’ She’s just done a great job, gotten better and better all year. She’s not one of our seniors, so we’ll get to have her back next year.”

In the decisive fifth set, the teams continued to swap punches at the start, just as they’d done all match. But after Lorena moved to a 7-5 lead, the Lady Leopards picked up the bounce in their step at the net, coming up with several critical blocks of Gatesville’s attacks.

The Hornets managed to fight off two match points at the end, but had some miscommunication on a scramble for the ball at the end, leading to the clinching point for Lorena.

Miller came up with 42 digs for Lorena, while setter Ashlynn Sorrells distributed 46 assists. Jenna Thompson finished with a double-double, smashing 11 kills to go with 21 digs, while Allison and Claire Conradt chipped in nine kills each.

For Gatesville, Kate Lovejoy banged out a steady array of spikes, coming up with key points when the Hornets seemed to need them most. But Phillips was most pleased with how many different players stepped up at different times.

“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” Phillips said. “She’s one of them, without a doubt. But we’ve got a lot of weapons. We had three or four tonight who did a good job of getting the ball to the floor, and that’s what you want. Against teams like Lorena, you’d better have more than one kid. And tonight we did, for the most part.”

Lorena will travel to China Spring on Friday in an attempt to sweep the first half of district unbeaten, while Gatesville will take a brief pit stop from district play when it faces Killeen Ellison on Friday.

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