Celina volleyball

Celina senior Lexi Manning (5) and junior Payton Grubbs (8) celebrate Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over Sanger in the regional quarterfinals.

PROSPER — After sweeping a pair of district outings against Sanger, the Celina volleyball team’s hopes for a spot in the Region II-4A tournament rested on a third meeting on Monday with the 9-4A rival Lady Indians.

Although the action during Monday’s regional quarterfinal unfolded differently from either regular-season matchup between the two, the outcome remained the same.

The Lady Bobcats (39-1) kept their once-beaten 2021 campaign intact, ousting a game Sanger bunch in four sets (25-15, 25-19, 23-25, 26-24) at Prosper High School to book their second trip to the regional semifinals since 2013.

“They just have incredible fight. They keep pushing themselves and playing for each other,” said Ginger Murray, Celina head coach. “They stay calm and composed, because we’ve been through a lot of games where we’ve had to come back. Whether it’s five sets or even three, these girls have shown they can battle back.”

It didn’t come easy, given the familiarity between the two squads. Celina scored two 3-0 verdicts over Sanger during the regular season and looked to be on its way to authoring a third on Monday after rolling to a pair of convincing wins in each of the first two sets.

But by the time the Lady Bobcats were at last able to celebrate, it came shortly after warding off set point as Sanger was attempting to push the match to five sets.

The Lady Indians, who entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed out of 9-4A, nearly conjured some more playoff magic after holding off Celina in a nip-and-tuck third set, 25-23, to avoid the sweep.

That proved to be more than just a feel-good moment for the Lady Indians, who built a lead of 20-16 in the fourth set and eventually found themselves serving for set point at 24-23 after a kill by Carly Schmucker.

Sanger had strung together its comeback through scrappy defense and efficient hitting — committing just four errors in the third set and only four leading up to a 23-22 advantage in the fourth frame.

“It’s something we talked about,” Murray said. “Even though we had seen them twice in district, these are the playoffs and they’re not going to be the same team. They’re just as hungry as us and this was how it was supposed to feel. We knew they wouldn’t lay down.”

Things unraveled at a costly time for Sanger. The Lady Indians committed errors on three of the match’s final five points with two coming on service errors that went well beyond the back line. The latter of the two knotted the count at 24-24 and an attack error followed not long after to put Celina in front, 25-24. 

Needing one point to advance, the Lady Bobcats capitalized behind a strong swing from senior Lexi Manning, who put down her fifth kill of the set to send Celina to the regional semifinals.

“I just have to tell them to stay composed, humble and hungry,” Murray said. “All year, we’ve really emphasized staying composed with what we’re doing and trusting each other. We just have to stay relaxed, and sometimes that’s easier said than done, but they do a great job with it.”

Manning was on her game Monday, recording at least four kills in each set to pace the Celina offense. When she was on the bench, sophomore Ryan McCoy took the controls, while reigning district MVP and senior Megan Hodges played all the way around her familiar brand of eclectic offense.

Hodges even went so far as to set an imposing tone for Monday’s match, opening the first set with a service run that spanned seven consecutive points. She logged two aces during that stretch as Celina immediately led 7-0 before Sanger could so much as catch its breath.

“When we started out like that, it was like we sensed it and felt it. They let down a little but were able to overcome it, for sure,” Murray said.

Hodges’ early salvo was the catalyst for an opening set where the Lady Bobcats led by as many as 12 points and landed 15 kills to Sanger’s seven en route to a 25-15 win.

The Lady Indians were more competitive in the second stanza, playing Celina to within 9-8 before the 9-4A champs strung together a 7-2 run to blow the match open. Manning and McCoy combined for 10 kills during the second set with the Lady Bobcats rolling to a 2-0 advantage behind a 25-19 win.

Sanger wound conjure its second wind but not enough to deny Celina from a spot in the regional semifinals — a gratifying feeling for the program one year removed from having its playoff run end in the third round at the hands of Kennedale.

“It’s incredible. It’s amazing to do what we’ve done up to this point this season. It’s amazing to be back here,” Murray said. “We graduated just one senior from last year, but it still feels like a completely different team. We’ve gelled so well and I’m proud of them.”

The Lady Bobcats return to action at 8 p.m. Friday at Mesquite Horn against either Van or Farmersville. 

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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