By Buck Ringgold | Photos by Michael Horbovetz
GARLAND – Gunter coach Katelyn Gill laid the groundwork for her team’s path toward a Class 3A volleyball championship shortly after its title-match defeat last season.
She really emphasized it as the calendar turned to the winter months. Saturday, all the Tigers’ hard work to make it back to play for a title culminated in the program’s first-ever state championship.
Gunter took a pair of two-point wins in the opening two sets before pulling away late in the third set to sweep Bushland, the team that beat the Lady Tigers in last year’s championship match. The Lady Tigers prevailed, 29-27, 25-23, 25-20, at the Curtis Culwell Center.
“Bushland does some really, really good things. … And so as soon as we got back in the gym in February and March, we started planning for those exact things that they do to try and break you even more in their long runs,” Gill said. “I think that the kids were just prepared for it more so and, with a great defensive effort, push through.”
The players themselves knew while some practices, in the offseason and even in the weeks leading up to Saturday, weren’t easy, it made them gain strength from both a mental and physical aspect.
“We’ve all just put in such hard work every day during practice, like sometimes during practices, we just ended up crying or sometimes practice was just good,” said senior middle hitter Rayanna Mauldin. “But either way, because of those practices, this is why we’re like here (Saturday), and this is why we got the outcome that we wanted.”
Gunter (43-6) cleared its first big obstacle Saturday after Bushland rallied from a 23-20 deficit and then 24-23 to score the next two points.
But the Lady Tigers pushed back set point, and each team ended up breaking the other’s set point. Bushland (41-4) faced another set point up 27-26, but a kill from Gunter’s Chloe Johnson tied it once more.
The Lady Tigers then took a 28-27 lead on a ball handling error and finally won set point on a kill from Hanna Rubis.
Gunter then built a 17-12 lead in the second set before the Lady Falcons challenged once more. Bushland tied it at 19-all, and after Gunter scored the next three points, the Lady Falcons forced another even score, 23-all.
Then, the Lady Tigers broke that deadlock with another kill from Mauldin and an attack error on set point to be one more set away from gold.
“That was exactly how last year was in this match; each team would go on long runs, and we talked so much about our defensive mindset in the offseason,” Gill said.
Gunter finally brought it home by ending the third set on a 6-2 run. A kill from Mauldin made it 24-20, and Rubis and Aubrey Walton combined for a block at the net on match point, as the Lady Tigers finally were able to break through.
“We talked before we came out about how that it doesn’t always have to be the prettiest game,” Gill said. “We learned that last year with Bushland in the finals, we needed to be (tenacious), and these kids really believed the entirety of each set, which led to us winning the match, that we just needed to be (tenacious) and keep pushing.
“I’m extremely proud of them and the way that we fought to win and just very, very proud to bring home the first state title to our entire girls athletic program, so very proud of these kids for sure.”
The Lady Tigers also prepared themselves to have a chance to play Saturday by playing a grueling schedule, including facing teams in higher classifications.
“From the beginning of the season, we knew we were going to have to put in the work that we did to get here,” senior libero Briley Singleton said. “We knew that our schedule was going to be tough, and we knew it was going to help us to be able to be mentally tough and physically (tough).”
Mauldin finished with 16 kills and a hitting percentage of .343 along with seven digs and two blocks in garnering MVP honors after the match.
“For me personally, it just feels really good to be able to finally win a state title, it’s just amazing,” she said.
Rubis and Miranda Putnicki each added eight kills, and the two combined for 11 blocks.
Also for Gunter, Adilynn Henry and Brelee Mauldin finished with 23 and 20 assists, respectively. Singleton had 16 digs, and Elle Whitteker 12.
For Bushland, Kaela Neie had 15 kills to go along with four digs and two blocks. Logan Culpepper recorded 30 assists, and along with teammate Jada Permenter, had 10 digs.
Here are photos from Saturday’s 3A state championship match: