GARLAND — The Celina volleyball team looked like anything but a group making its first-ever appearance at the UIL state tournament.
The Lady Bobcats may as well have bottled up enough energy to power the Curtis Culwell Center prior to stepping on the floor on Friday for the biggest match of their 2021 season thus far. Celina channeled that energy into a trio of commanding starts in the Class 4A state semifinals to fuel a 3-0 sweep of Needville (25-23, 25-18, 25-17) and book a spot in Saturday’s state final.
“We had plenty of energy going in. We were so excited to be here and just on a natural, excited high right now,” said Ginger Murray, Celina head coach. “We came out blazing, they made adjustments and we had to make adjustments right back. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
That manifested from the start of all three sets on Friday as the Lady Bobcats pounced on Needville early in each frame.
Senior Lexi Manning hammered down a kill for the evening’s first point to spark a 6-0 run to begin the first set. One frame later, the Lady Bobcats pierced the Needville defense for five kills in a six-point span for another 6-0 start in set two. And in the match’s final stanza, a pair of aces from sophomore Kinsey Murray staked Celina to a 6-1 advantage.
“I’ve preached to them all year about staying composed, patient and hungry,” coach Murray said. “They just trust each other and they play very relaxed. They never wilt. They always rise up.”
But for as imposing a note as the Lady Bobcats began each frame on, all three saw Needville rally. The Blue Jays shrugged off one gaudy deficit after another to pull even with Celina — despite leading by as many as 10 points at 14-4 in the first set, the Lady Bobcats faced a 22-21 deficit late in the frame courtesy of some stingy defense by Needville.
Celina had an answer for each rally, however. The Lady Bobcats exited the first set on a 4-1 run, capped by consecutive kills from junior Payton Grubbs and Manning to eke out a 25-23 victory.
Just like set one, Needville responded to an 11-3 deficit and pulled within one point at 16-15 later in the frame. And when Celina sprinted out to a 6-1 advantage in set three, the Blue Jays battled back to seize a 12-10 lead — the largest deficit the Lady Bobcats would face all match. Celina responded each time.
“We just had to continue to trust each other out there. Have patience and don’t wig out, basically,” coach Murray said. “There were definitely times we saw that happen. … We told them to have fun out there — everybody wants to get here and they did. Now just go play, do us and have fun.”
Senior Megan Hodges and freshman Aubrey Lambert helped the Lady Bobcats answer Needville’s second-set run. Hodges tallied back-to-back kills to open up a 19-15 lead as Celina strung together a 7-2 run to build a 23-17 advantage — Hodges, the reigning 9-4A MVP, and Lambert combined for 10 kills in the second stanza.
“We can definitely rely on each other if we’re freaking out,” Hodges said. “We look at each other and know to calm down. We definitely hold each other together, for sure.”
Hodges logged a triple-double in her state tournament debut, finishing with 10 kills, 21 assists and 13 digs. She even had a hand in match point, teaming with Grubbs to bat down a swing from Needville’s Maya Scott and seal a 25-17 win in set three.
Manning led all hitters with 14 kills in the win, tacking on seven digs. Lambert and sophomore Ryan McCoy added nine kills apiece.
“It’s all just mixing up shots and adjusting, and it helps to have people in the back yelling out where to hit sometimes when we can’t see it,” Manning said.
Sophomore Reagan Radtke was one of four Lady Bobcats to log double-digit digs in the win, tallying 15 on the back row. Senior Morgan Kelley dug 14 balls in addition to 13 apiece from Hodges and Kinsey Murray to help Celina move to within one win of a state championship.
“This is probably the biggest court that any of us have played on. It was a whole new experience and I’m glad we got to do it all together,” Kelley said.
The Lady Bobcats get to bask in that experience one more time together, scheduled to return to action at 1 p.m. Saturday against either Decatur or Bellville in the 4A state final.
“We want to keep the energy and confidence rolling, but it’s a new day. New day, new game,” Hodges said.