Essence Clerkley does not serve often. She does, however, seem to have a knack for the big moment.
Clerkley took the ball behind the service line Friday night inside the gymnasium at Mansfield Legacy High School for the biggest serve thus far this season for the Lady Indians. Waxahachie was at match point in the fourth set against a formidable Coppell side in the 6A Region I area championship.
Her serve landed in the middle of the Cowgirls receive and, few short seconds later, it was followed by an Audrey Nalls attack that went unreturned, advancing (44-4) No. 7 Waxahachie to the regional quarterfinals with a four-set victory, 20-25, 28-26, 25-12, 25-23.
The win total is a new program-high for the Waxahachie volleyball program, as is the advancement in the 6A playoffs and every win on out. Junior setter Ragan Ward also re-broke the single-match assists record (56) that she previously bested this season for the nationally ranked Lady Indians. Nalls finished with her first 25-25 double-double on the season, with a match-high 28 digs and team-high 25 kills.
With all of that in mind, Waxahachie head volleyball coach Sandy Faussett perfectly summed up the thriller after a short celebration with the Lady Indians and some 300-plus fans in attendance: “It was so much fun.”
“Right before the fourth set, I looked at the girls and told them, ‘This is fun,’” Faussett said. “That is what it is all about. It’s no fun to win games that you can easily control — that is what competition is all about. These are the memories that they’ll have the rest of their lives.”
Coppell won the first set, 25-20, behind the strong front-row play by sophomore middle Madison Gilliland, who entered with a team-high 436 kills and 164 total blocks.
“It was probably halfway through that second set that we moved our block over to get some help on [Gilliland],” Faussett said after the match. “In the first and second set, she was just hitting around a single block because they run it so quick, but in the second and third, especially in the third, we really started slowing that ball down and running our offense better, and it really helped our confidence.”
The Lady Indians began the second set with back-to-back kills by Nalls and Clerkley, but Coppell quickly tied the set. It remained that way through the first 18 points.
The Cowgirls then reeled off a 4-0 run that ultimately forced a Lady Indians timeout after two long rallies went for naught.
Lacy Mott recorded a kill out of the break to pull Waxahachie back within three, 13-10. Clerkley promptly followed with a stuff block from the right side. It was one of three blocks on the evening for the senior.
Waxahachie eventually battled back to tie the set at 17-all — thanks to a change in approach by Nalls at the service line.
The senior, who had chosen a more conservative jump serve to start the match, switched to the high-toss attack at the verbal encouragement of Faussett just after she took the ball behind the line.
Nalls’ serve helped reel off three consecutive points, capped by an ace, and forced the first Coppell timeout of the second set.
When asked if it was at that point in the match that Faussett felt the momentum shift into the Lady Indians corner, the coach emphatically replied, "Absolutely."
“I just felt like at that point we just had to be as aggressive as we could be. We know when [Nalls] is on that it is a great serve," Faussett explained. "She struggled a bit tonight with her serve early, but when it came down to it, at the right time, it was very effective.”
The Cowgirls quickly took a 19-17 lead and carried the advantage into 22-20. They then pushed to 23-21.
Coppell's Peyton Minyard followed a Nalls kill with one of her own to edge the Cowgirls to set point, 24-22.
Back-to-back Nalls kills brought the several hundred Lady Indians supporters to their feet and forced a second Coppell timeout with the second set knotted at 24-all.
Ward nearly recorded an ace; only to have two stellar Cowgirls plays result in a Coppell point.
Madison Barbers then came up with a huge stuff block and Nalls, with that same aggressive jump serve, fired home an ace to give the Lady Indians their first lead since early in the second set, 26-25.
Mott sealed the Waxahachie second-set momentum-stealing win, 29-26, with a kill from the left side three serves later.
"As a whole, the first set, we just struggled," Faussett said. "We worked through it, and that is what we always tell the kids — to just work through it. You may come out and hit a couple of balls into the net, or you may struggle but like with Lacy, she was struggling to hit on the outside, so we moved her into the middle. She was unbelievable. We just have to continue to find a different way for us to be effective.”
With momentum now squarely in their corner, the Lady Indians jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the third set.
The run continued into a second Cowgirls timeout with Waxahachie up, 12-3, after a Rodgers ace.
The Lady Indians eventually increased the lead to double-digits, 15-5, and never looked back, easily taking the third set, 25-12.
By the end of that set and after a Nalls kill down the left boundary, two members of the Mansfield Legacy maintenance crew — seated in seats eight and 10 of row F behind the Coppell cheerleaders — had turned into supporters of the Lady Indians, cheering along with every point. The older gentleman even dropped a fist-pump as the teams headed into the fourth set with Waxahachie up two games to one.
Everything was going right for Waxahachie.
It was Coppell that came out strong in the fourth set, though, as the Cowgirls built a 7-3 lead before Courtney Crownover terminated a Ward set.
Coppell managed to maintain its three-point lead into the teens, 13-10.
Two Cowgirl errors followed by a Wells dig that led to a Mott kill then tied the set at 13.
Waxahachie tied it again a few serves later at 15-all after a stellar series of digs led to a Clerkley kill from center to once again bring those in green and white to their feet.
Nalls recorded an ace to put the Lady Indians ahead 19-18 a little later. Three serves after that, Clerkley went up strong for her third block of the match to put the Lady Indians on top, 21-19.
Coppell refused to go away quietly, battling back to tie the match at 22 and force the first Waxahachie timeout since the second set.
A couple of serves later and nearly out of substitutes, Faussett elected to leave Clerkley in to serve the final point.
The decision paid off.
Nalls fired home the match-winner — her team-high 25th kill — on Ward's new single-match program-high 56th assist.
Crownover added 16 kills, while Mott had 12 and Clerkley finished with 11.
The Lady Indians were led in digs by Nalls (28), Alli Wells (18), Ward (12), Anna Rodgers (12) and Baylee Whitehead (10) on the back row.
Whitehead was also 12-of-15 on serves received.
“Our passing game and our defensive game had to be there tonight, and we knew it had to be there,” Faussett said. “Fortunately, we have some people back there who just continue to do a good job.”
Waxahachie will now face (36-9) Southlake Carroll in the 6A Region I quarterfinals.
The Lady Dragons swept Hebron in the area championship, 27-25, 25-23, 25-22. Head coach Teresa Dunn, who was in the same role at Midlothian last season, leads the Lady Dragons.
“They are solid but there any team we see from here on out is going to be solid. We are going to have to play our very best volleyball. It is a challenge, but it’s fun.”
Waxahachie ends the week ranked No. 9 in the USA Today Super 25 national poll and No. 7 in the Texas Girls Coaches Association 6A rankings. Southlake Carroll is not ranked in either poll.
The date, time and location have not yet been set.