Tinley Merder

McKinney North sophomore Tinley Merder (8) celebrates after a Class 5A Region II semifinal match against North Forney on Tuesday at Plano East Senior High School. McKinney North won the match 3-0.

PLANO – When Libby Rodriguez was hired in March 2019 to become the next head coach of McKinney North’s volleyball team, she wanted to change the motto from “winning is a goal” to “winning is the expectation.”

Fast-forward to Tuesday night and the Lady Bulldogs rewrote the school record books yet again.

Paced by fast starts in each of the first two sets in a Class 5A Region II semifinal against North Forney, North cruised to a 3-0 (25-19, 25-12, 25-16) victory against the Lady Falcons and advanced to the regional finals for the first time in program history. North (23-3) will play defending state champion and District 10-5A adversary Lovejoy (23-0) at 7:30 p.m Thursday at Allen.

“It means everything for these girls and this program, because these girls have worked so hard since my first day last year,” Rodriguez said. “They set a goal to change the culture of this program at McKinney North, and they’ve done it. They’re coming in every day. They’re working hard. They have a big picture goal in mind, but they’re having fun along the way. That’s something that they’re doing in the huddle, in every practice. And, I’m proud of them.”

Three days after North Forney (17-6) defeated Greenville (17-6) in five sets to advance to the regional semifinals for the first time in program history, North, which was also making its first-ever appearance in the fourth round of the playoffs, never let the Lady Falcons get comfortable.

North jumped out to leads of 4-0 and 8-1 in the first and second sets, respectively, and while North Forney dug out several balls hit by the Lady Bulldogs late in the first game, those deficits proved too large for the Lady Falcons to overcome.

Sophomore libero Tinley Merder stepped behind the service line to commence the second set and all she did was score the first seven points of the game for North, including four service aces. Merder also led the Lady Bulldogs’ defensive efforts with 18 digs.

North was without the services of senior middle blocker Nylah Encalade, who was seen in a walking boot and crutches after sustaining a high ankle sprain during the Lady Bulldogs’ previous match against Lebanon Trail.

With Encalade and her team-leading 76 blocks on the season forced to watch the action from the sideline, 6-3 sophomore Natalie Hughes filled Encalade’s role as net enforcer rather well on Tuesday. Hughes finished with nine kills and five blocks. The last of Hughes’ three kills in the second set gave McKinney North a comfortable 23-11 lead.

Senior outside hitter Hallie Collett and junior outside hitter Sydney Huck combined for 19 kills, while sophomore setter Lily Nicholson rounded out North’s efforts with a team-high 32 assists.

“Natalie has no clue how good she is going to be,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just so excited to see her start that climb to the top. I told her tonight was her time to shine and she did. She did a fantastic job.”

North Forney held five different leads in the third set, the last occasion being 11-9 after a kill by senior Jenae Thomas. But, North regrouped and Rodriguez’s players saved their best for last. Collett put the Lady Bulldogs ahead for good at 14-12 following a service ace and a kill on back-to-back plays.

“They’re a great team. They’re very disciplined,” Rodriguez said of North Forney. “And I knew that they were comfortable in adversity. I kept telling my kids ‘don’t get comfortable when you get a lead. You’ve got to put your foot on the gas and keep going with it.’ We did a pretty good job of that.”

As for getting a third opportunity this season to take down Lovejoy, Rodriguez has told her Lady Bulldogs to live in the moment. Lovejoy defeated North 3-0 both times the two teams have played this season.

“We’re just excited to have this opportunity and to be in this moment,” she said. “We know that anything is possible. We just have to bring it and bring the best game that we have.”

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