Teams don’t get much more evenly matched than the volleyball squads from Reicher and Vanguard.
It seemed only fitting, then, that those two pushed each other to the very limit.
As she had done throughout the match, sophomore hitter Kendee Hilliard powered a kill to put the finishing touches on Vanguard’s dramatic 25-23, 23-25, 23-25, 25-17, 18-16 victory over Reicher in a TAPPS District 3-4A tiebreaker contest on Thursday night at University High School.
The teams split a pair of equally blood pressure-raising squabbles in the regular season, each winning on their home court. They finished the regular season with identical 3-5 district records, forcing this final winner-take-all duel.
And yet again, a paper-thin margin separated them.
“We knew that this was going to take every ounce of energy that we had, and we kind of prepared for it all season long,” Reicher coach Andrea Holdbrook said. “We kind of knew it was going to come down to the two of us to be able to move forward in the playoffs.”
Added Vanguard coach Angela Antis: “There’s a rivalry between Reicher and Vanguard. There always has been. So they did their part, and we did ours.”
The rivalry was apparently intensified by some recent social media sniping between some students at the two schools. On Thursday, however, the teams kept thing civil, preferring to take out their aggressions on the volleyball itself.
Reicher ignited its offense early with some efficient serving. Katie Guffey tagged a pair of aces in the early stages and Charley Brewton later drilled three in a row as the Lady Cougars (15-15) pushed to a 21-12 lead in the first set.
Then, Hilliard elevated her play, and the Lady Vikings (15-12) hopped on for the piggyback ride. The high-flying sophomore swatted an assortment of whistling spikes and soft tips to spark a 14-2 run, leading the Lady Vikings from behind to take the set.
Hilliard finished with a spectacular triple-double — 24 digs, 21 digs and 16 blocks.
“We’ve got our strong middle (in Hilliard), and she’s a baby,” Antis said. “She brings a lot to the table while the rest of us are growing. … If we can set it up to her, she can put it down.”
Vanguard couldn’t always feed Hilliard, however, as its passing proved erratic. Reicher managed to pull out the next two hard-fought sets, spreading out its attacks between a variety of front-line players. Adeline Vela (10 kills, 23 digs) and Katie Guffey (12 kills, 12 digs) both produced double-doubles for the Lady Cougars.
“We had moments of greatness and then we had some blunders,” Holdbrook said. “It was pretty evenly-matched. We knew it was going to come down to little things and execution, and we just fell short there.”
Despite falling behind two sets to one, the Lady Vikings sailed back. They sprawled to the court for a number of hustling digs, and Hilliard again found a groove at the net. With her team up 24-17 in the fourth set, she deployed a deft tip over the blockers to force one final set to 15.
Like a pair of prized fighters running on adrenaline, the teams traded blows — leading to alternating roars of approval from the raucous Reicher and Vanguard student sections. Reicher took a 14-13 lead to move to its first match point, only to punch a serve into the net. Ties at 14, 15 and 16 followed.
Finally, Vanguard moved ahead at 17-16 when a couple of Reicher players bumped into one another trying to field the ball. Then Hilliard tied a bow on the win with a blast through the defense.
“There were some long rallies,” Antis said. “This was one of those things that you didn’t think might happen but you really hoped it would. You knew you were outnumbered, you knew your odds were kind of low, but it was great. This was a great, great win.”
Ana Watson scooped up 22 digs for Reicher, and Kassie Abel delivered a match-high 43 assists. For Vanguard, Catherine Holley had 26 digs and 16 assists, Rachel Avery tallied 25 digs and 18 assists and Rachel Merchant came through with 14 digs and 11 blocks.
Vanguard moves on to the TAPPS Class 4A area playoffs to face Lubbock Christian in Lubbock at a date and time to be determined next week.
Reicher’s season, meanwhile, comes to a close, though the Lady Cougars had no reason to hang their heads.
“After that, I told them I was very proud of them,” Holdbrook said. “Obviously they all stepped up in this game. The seniors played probably their best game all season. I think they knew that everything came up to this point.
“We talked to them here at the end and we told them that we loved them, appreciated all their hard work and leadership. I think they left it all on the court, and that’s all you can really ask.”