MANSFIELD — Tuesday night's district matchup at Mansfield Lake Ridge High School and subsequent 3-1 Lady Eagle victory was less about firepower and more about how weapons functioned on the court of battle.
It was also about how the volleyball battlefield may be tougher for the Lady Indians to navigate than it's ever been.
"It came down to serving and serve reception," said Sandy Fausett, the head volleyball coach at Waxahachie High School, about the 10-5A's difficulty after her team's four-set loss. "We knew going into it that this is a really tough district. We knew one of the toughest teams we're going to face is going to be Lake Ridge. We knew we were coming to their place."
Mansfield Lake Ridge (22-7, 2-0) topped Waxahachie in four sets, 22-25, 25-23, 25-18, and 25-20. The Lady Indians' first district defeat came despite six or more kills and 10 or more digs from four different players and a 27-assist, 12-dig and 5-ace near triple-double from senior setter Taylor Stoops.
A year earlier, Waxahachie swept both matches by a combined 6-1 total and was poised for a third meeting with Mansfield Lake Ridge in the UIL 5A Regional Finals if not for losses to Lovejoy and Frisco Wakeland High Schools.
Stoops also handed out 10 assists in the match's final set, floating seamlessly from Faussett's standard 5-1 system to pairing with Ragan Ward in the 6-2.
"Whether you're in 6-2 or 5-1, their job is huge," Faussett said about the vitality of the setter position to both the function of a team's offense and defense. "Everybody's job is important because unless we get a pass up, the setter's job is irrelevant. They all have areas of specialization. Our defensive players have to be able to pass the ball and play great defense."
Stoops and Ward's court awareness helped spark 5- and 10-point rallies — including a 15-8 run to start the set — in the first stanza and hand decisive kills to junior outside hitters Courtney Crownover and Macie Milholen.
"Our setters have to distribute the ball and make good choices on the court just like a quarterback on the field, throwing the ball to the right person, calling the right plays and changing the offense based on what they see," Faussett added. "Our hitters have to be able to terminate the ball based on what they're given by the setter. They all have to work well together and if we're missing any part of that, then [the system] will break down."
The balanced attack also helped Waxahachie, which was without District MVP Audrey Nalls, claim a 25-22 first-set advantage against a bigger front line touting the likes of 6-foot-3 national kills leader Capri Davis, 6-foot-2 junior nationals selection Madison Williams, 6-foot-3 middle blocker Alycia Johnson, and 5-foot-11 setter Logyn Hinds.
In the following sets, Mansfield Lake Ridge's quartet would change the tide of the battle via a counter strike begun in the first set by kill, block, and ace.
Hinds had five of her seven aces in the first two sets, including two during point-for-point exchanges in the middle of the second. Five of Davis' 20 total kills helped the Lady Eagles stop an 11-5 Waxahachie rally and seal the second set 25-23 on senior Lauryn Tam's set-point ace.
"We had six missed serves in the second set and couldn't pass the ball," Faussett said. "They're such a big blocking team and much more of a physical presence. We had trouble getting the pass up and running the ball through our offense. When our pass is off the net and we only have one option, they know we only have one option. They walk over there, put their big old block up and we struggle."
While Davis, Hinds, and Tam were vital to stopping the Lady Indians' frenetic momentum in the second, the play of Johnson, Williams, and freshman Lyric Stewart were as important to doing the same in the third.
Stewart's ace gave Mansfield Lake Ridge the first lead of the set. A back-to-back kill and ace by Johnson and Williams, as well as a Davis slam on the next point, helped reduce a once 5-point Waxahachie advantage to two. Johnson stuff blocks accounted for two of the seven final Lady Eagle points, including a 3-0 run to close the third set 25-18.
With help from back-to-back kills from sophomore outside hitter Lacy Mott and junior middle blocker Essence Clerkley, a Crownover kill that launched a 5-0 run, and a deft Stoops' ace that pushed the score to 8-3 in favor of the Lady Indians, Waxahachie nearly forced fifth and decisive set.
"They didn't give up. I loved their fight, especially late in the game," Faussett said about her team's unwillingness to seed ground or give in to pressure during the second, third, and fourth sets.
Mott, who notched a double-double with 13 kills and 13 digs, was one of four players to record double-digit digs. Junior libero Alli Wells (13), Stoops (12) and senior defensive specialist Sara Sims (11) were the others.
Faussett said her team's play and the improved hitting from it, rather than individual performances, was the engine that kept the Lady Indians in the game in the middle and end of wild sets.
She noted key kills by junior outside hitter Anna Rodgers in the waning moments of the third set and Crownovers' play during early exchanges in the second, as well as Stoops' points off serve throughout the match.
"That's just a quality we have to have," Faussett continued. "We can't ever give up. We had a lot of good performances from a lot of players and that was something I was pleased to see."
A block and a kill from senior Lindsay Johnson, five total points from Davis (3 kills, 2 blocks) and a pair of aces and a block by Hinds helped shut down Lady Indian power surges, win the fourth set 25-20, and help Mansfield Lake Ridge remain atop the district standings.
"They played really, really well against us," Faussett said. "I'm not surprised at anything I saw, I'm just disappointed in our passing game because it's something we've been able to rely on. A lot of times I don't pinpoint hitting as our strength, but I think our hitters did a great job. They took good swings, didn't make a lot of unforced errors. The hitting game wasn't where we had our breakdown — which is great because it was against a big blocking team."
The Lady Indians will face Mansfield Timberview High School on the road at 5:30 p.m. Friday at MTHS Gymnasium. The Lady Wolves are 0-1 in the district since falling to Mansfield Lake Ridge 3-1 on Sept. 8.
Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.