WEST — Down a set to a familiar nemesis and the defending state champion, Live Oak knew what it had to do.
It’s a volleyball thing, nothing out of the ordinary. It needed to go on a digging expedition.
Live Oak tightened up its defense after a ragged opening set, which allowed its supernova of a senior hitter Bailey Keith to get loose more often for swing attempts. And Keith powered a match-best 32 kills and chipped in 20 digs in spurring the Lady Falcons to a 19-25, 25-19, 25-20, 25-23 win over Lubbock All Saints in the TAPPS Class 2A state championship match on Friday afternoon at West’s Trojan Gym.
“It’s indescribable,” said Keith of the feeling of vanquishing an All Saints team that defeated Live Oak in last year’s state final. “This is what we’ve been working so hard for, what we’ve been pushing for since last year. I’m just so happy for this team.”
All Saints (26-13) showed it didn’t want to relinquish its grip on the state title trophy just yet. It pushed Live Oak and extended rallies from the outset. The teams fought to a 12-12 tie in the opening set before the Patriots started to inch forward when Live Oak’s back line failed to make workable passes off the Patriots’ attacks.
All Saints pulled out a 25-19 first-set win when Live Oak (33-8) was whistled for a lift on set point, temporarily muting a rather raucous green-and-black Falcon crowd.
“I just told them to stay on their feet,” Live Oak coach Natalie Friesen said. “(All Saints) hit harder than some of the teams we’ve seen, but we just had to stay on our feet and play our game.”
Live Oak found its footing, and that allowed the Falcons to start elevating from the floor for screaming kills. Keith, the national leader in kills, delivered five kills, including one with extra mustard that could have broken the finger of a would-be blocker, at the start of the second set as the Falcons regained some momentum by jumping out to an 11-4 lead.
Live Oak pulled out a 25-19 victory when All Saints’ Nicole LoCascio mishit the ball into the net on set point for the Falcons.
The Falcons kept the momentum on their side, seizing an 11-3 lead at the start of the pivotal third set thanks to some hustling, scrambling defense and an assortment of Keith smashes. Live Oak closed out that set with freshman middle blocker Leah Stephenson producing three straight kills of varying speeds, giving the Falcons a 25-20 win and a major shot of confidence.
The play of freshmen like Stephenson (11 kills) and Hattie Mills, along with the contributions of others like junior libero Kathryn Baker, and junior setter Rebekah Curry, should give Live Oak fans reason for hope in the future. Keith is a special, once-in-a-generation talent who will play at Air Force next year, but the cupboard won’t be barren for Friesen next year.
“The future is certainly bright,” Friesen said. “Stephenson was huge, but the juniors, the sophomores, they were all huge. It’s nice to know you can graduate a player as special as Bailey Keith, and still feel good about what’s coming back.”
Added Keith: “Their mental game is so strong. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish.”
With victory within sight, Live Oak used some aggressive service to fly out to a 20-14 lead in the fourth set. But All Saints kept firing away from all directions, desperate to keep its season alive. The Patriots rallied to within 23-20 on a tip from junior Katie Bayouth. Then the Patriots drew even closer to Live Oak’s back bumper, digging out a near-kill to bring the score to 24-23.
But on match point, All Saints served long of the back line, allowing Live Oak to win the set – and, more importantly, the championship.
The Falcons whooped and hollered in jubilation, flashing beaming smiles as they received their TAPPS state medals and plaque. Keith, Baker, Stephenson and Curry all made the all-tournament team for Live Oak, while Bayouth, Syriah Flores, Tatum Harper and Sara Phy made the squad for All Saints.
“This feels really good,” Friesen said. “We’ve been working for this for a long time. All Saints is a really good team and they played well, really pushed us, but I’m proud of the way our team stepped up and played tough.”