RICHARDSON - For the 11th straight year, the Lovejoy volleyball team will be competing in the regional playoffs.
For a team that hasn't had much adversity in 2017, getting there was anything but easy.
The Lady Leopards rebounded from a 2-1 match deficit to top Frisco Liberty in five nerve-wrenching sets (25-23, 14-25, 24-26, 25-20, 15-12) Monday at Berkner High School. Lovejoy will be back at Berkner at 5 p.m. Friday to play the winner of Waxahachie and Mansfield Lake Ridge in the Region II semifinal.
For Liberty, a wildly successful season comes to an end at the hands of a state-ranked team that it was completely unintimidated by on Tuesday.
"At no point did we enter this game thinking we were going to lose," said Ui'Lani Womble, Liberty head coach. "We knew Lovejoy was awesome, but we were ready to make some history. We played great, but we just had a couple of miscues."
Sophomore Jenna Wenaas and senior Kate Blasingame were outstanding for the Lady Redhawks, who finished in second place in the ultra-competitive District 13-5A and won their first two playoff games in dominating fashion. It was Wenaas and Blasingame, specifically, who made plays in the third set to bring Liberty back from a 24-19 deficit to win and claim a 26-24 victory and a 2-1 match lead.
"You could see it in [Wenaas and Blasingame's] eyes that they were not going to lose, and that they did not want our season to end," Womble said.
"They got hot at the end [of Set Three] and we didn't respond well," added Jason Nicholson, Lovejoy head coach. "Those hitters they have, Jenna and Kate, they can really hit the ball. Jenna is the real deal."
But Lovejoy showed the poise that comes from a team used to competing for state championships, as it rebounded from the gut-punching loss in Set Three to win Set Four and set up a winner-take-all Set Five.
In the final set, senior and Baylor commit Shanel Bramschreiber was outstanding, leading Lovejoy to an early 5-1 lead. But Liberty, like it had all evening, refused to back down. The Lady Redhawks turned a 9-4 deficit into an 11-8 deficit, then came within one at 11-10 before Lovejoy rattled off two straight points for a 13-10 lead.
Liberty would come as close as 13-12 before two blocks gave the Lady Leopards the set and match win.
"When we get on a roll and are aggressive, we're a pretty good team," Nicholson said. "The thing we have to work on if we're going to seriously contend for a state title is to stay aggressive for entire matches. That's how Liberty was able to get a hold of us tonight -- we were backing up and waiting for the ball instead of attacking.
“If we didn't have such athletic girls, I would tell them to stay back and play more strategically, but we've got some girls who can really hit the snot out of the ball, and we need to just do that instead of being passive."
Bramschreiber finished with 15 digs, Madison Waters had 22 kills, Annabelle Archer had 48 assists and Rachel Langs added eight kills and four solo blocks for the Lady Leopards.
After winning Set One, Liberty dominated Set Two, winning 25-14. Lovejoy got out to a comfortable lead in Set Three, but Liberty kept fighting, eventually scoring the final seven points in a thrilling 26-24 win.
However, Lovejoy responded in a fashion that Nicholson hopes will plant seeds for future playoff matchups.
"We can't back down at any point, especially if we're going to play great teams like Waxahachie or Prosper or [Frisco] Reedy down the line," he said. "But I think we can take what we experienced tonight and use it for some good."
For Liberty, the future is bright with Wenaas, a Texas A&M volleyball commit, manning the middle of the floor with a strong returning class.
"It's always great to have a bunch of young players that you can already count on [on varsity], and we've got a great freshman class coming up, too," Womble said. "There's really nothing else I can say about this year's team; they just played their hearts out all season."
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