GARLAND — From its two Division I-bound setters to the myriad hitting options throughout its lineup, the Lovejoy volleyball team set a pace that Manvel couldn’t match in Friday’s Class 5A state semifinal.
The Lady Leopards threw all manner of attacks at the Mavericks, a team making its first-ever appearance at the UIL state tournament — an arsenal whose totality helped the two-time defending 5A state champions cruise to a 3-0 sweep (25-14, 25-15, 25-11) from the Curtis Culwell Center to book a spot in Saturday’s 5A state final.
“I thought the girls were composed the entire match,” said Natalie Puckett, Lovejoy head coach. “They came out with huge energy. One thing we tried to focus on was tempo on our side, getting the ball and going, as well as out-working and out-hustling the opponent.”
Twelve appearances at the state tournament will do that for a program, with several of Lovejoy’s seniors making their third or fourth trips to state. In fact, seniors Rosemary Archer and Averi Carlson were on the floor as freshmen during the 2018 state tournament — the last time the Lady Leopards exited the Culwell Center without a 5A state title.
Those two were front and center in helping orchestrate an offense that had Manvel scrambling on Friday.
“I think their setters were really hard to read,” said Susan Kennedy, Manvel head coach. “We’re normally a really good blocking team, so that jump set, not know where she was going and that faster offense was something we struggled with. Usually our blocking is our bread and butter, and they just threw us off.”
Having two players capable of executing that attack has only bolstered Lovejoy’s firepower this season, opting to run more of a two-setter offense with both Carlson and Archer spreading the ball around.
“They’re both comfortable setting, but they score points at the net too,” Puckett said. “At the end of the day, we need people to score points and that’s why we made that transition. These two absolutely killed that, literally.”
Archer finished her afternoon with 10 kills, 13 assists and nine digs, while Carlson tallied 24 assists, three kills and six digs.
“I think we play very much alike and we have good trust between each other,” Archer said. “There’s a trust where we know can set each other and still score or set the middle, the outsides and right sides. We both can spread the ball around and never overpower each other.”
There’s also a comfort within both players in setting any of their teammates — something that shined all throughout Friday’s semifinal. In the first set alone, six different Lady Leopards recorded at least one kill, and overall, five Lovejoy players finished with a hitting percentage of .286 or better.
“That was definitely part of our game plan, to spread the ball around and keep their middles guessing,” Puckett said. “They have some awesome middles who are fast and athletic. We wanted to keep them guessing all game, and that goes back to our two setters being comfortable setting whoever. We talk about placement over power — there are always openings in any defense, so it’s a matter of finding those and executing on them.”
At the top of that ledger was junior Hannah Gonzalez, a force Manvel had no answer for on Friday. The Lovejoy middle blocker tallied a team-high 11 kills on .529 hitting to go along with five blocks. She accounted for set point in the first and third frames on Friday — the latter coming on a heat-seeker to sew up the 25-11 match win.
“Hannah is a beast. She brings so much energy to any gym that she’s in and we’re very fortunate to have her on our side,” Puckett said. “... She gets after it and you love a middle who’s always an option and I think we have two of those.”
“Defensively, I’m so thankful for her,” added Ava Camacho, Lovejoy senior libero. “There are times when there’s a split and I feel like I’m about to get hit in the face and Hannah comes out of nowhere to block it. She’s amazing.”
Camacho sparked Lovejoy’s defensive effort with 14 digs on the back row, while seniors Lauran Richards and Avery Villarreal got in on the action with eight and seven kills, respectively.
It was a commanding effort for the reigning state champions, who found themselves tied just five times and trailing only once across Friday’s three sets.
Manvel totaled six blocks in the loss, including four from Christian Fairbanks. Devyn Lewis led the Mavericks with eight kills, while Mary-Kate Preston chipped in six.
As a team, Lovejoy limited Manvel to just .060 hitting for the afternoon.
“I think it’s real easy in this program to get distracted and assume that wins happen,” Puckett said. “The first words out of my mouth when I see them after a win is, ‘This doesn’t just happen.’ Being here, getting to this point and wearing that jersey, it doesn’t just happen. We go back to the ground level of the time and work we’ve put in for these moments.”
The Lady Leopards will look to capture the program’s ninth state championship, and third in a row, at 3 p.m. Saturday back in Garland for a 5A title match against either Grapevine or Comal Canyon.