ROCKWALL – In matches against Class 6A Richardson and Class 5A Frisco Centennial at Rockwall on Friday, Aug. 25, Melissa’s Lady Cardinals (11-5) came up short twice, though each time they took a set before falling in this best-of-three format at Utley Middle School.

“We’re the smallest school here in the tournament,” Melissa head coach Frank DePaolo said. “Coach [Whitney] Nelson put this on the schedule back when she was the [Lady Cards’] coach and I left it on there because it’s a good opportunity for us to see kids that are bigger than us, kids that are faster than us. We have to play really well to win a set, much less a match.”

DePaolo added that he told his charges this was a chance to see a level of talent they would face should they make a deep playoff run. The key against these teams, he said, is to “play good defense, starting with our blocking. We need to slow the ball down, allow our diggers to have an opportunity and then we just need to play consistently.”

Richardson prevailed in the opener, 25-13, 20-25, 25-16, with repeated strong kills to the back stripe. DePaolo said the well-placed shots were hitting an area that’s almost impossible to defend. “We can’t cover 900 square feet with six people, especially when two of them are blocking… The blockers are supposed to take away a large portion of the court with their block. When they don’t, or when [opponents] hit around our block and hit it deep, if it lands in those corners I just call that a ‘10-percent ball.’ We can’t defend that. I clap my hands at the hitter and say, ‘Good job.’ We try to adjust our blocking to force them to not be able to hit corners.

“We tried to do that today. I thought we did a little better job in the second set. They didn’t hit as well and I think we forced them into some of that. Then they started getting a little frustrated and we were able to win that set.”

In Set 1, the Lady Eagles raced to a 9-2 lead before back-to-back kills from junior Susan Blake and senior Brittany Melcher gave Melissa life. Later, a service ace from sophomore Caroline Kasson and another Blake kill kept the Lady Cards within striking distance, at 17-11. But two Melissa balls into the net would send Richardson’s lead to 19-12, forcing a timeout call from DePaolo.

Out of the break, the Lady Eagles poured it on with two straight aces and a tip-over-the-net kill. The set ended with a final Richardson dink to an open spot.

Set 2 opened with four ties on the way to 6-6, with Blake posting an early kill and a block. Another Blake kill and one from Kasson had Melissa up, 11-8, before Richardson drew back to 12-11. The teams dueled down the stretch with the Lady Eagles drilling shots to the back line and junior Anna Fortenberry’s ace and a Kasson kill providing Melissa’s response.

Kasson’s next kill and an early-shift call on Richardson had the Lady Cards up, 22-17, before the Lady Eagles threatened to end the match with three straight killers. But a big hit from KG Matthews regained the momentum for Melissa, 23-20, and Blake’s block-kill ended the set.

In the decisive third stanza, the Lady Cards broke on top, 3-0, but Richardson answered to tie at 4-4 and 5-5. Two errant Melissa shots later, the Lady Eagles led, 7-5, and they’d not trail again. After a Kasson kill pulled the Lady Cards to within, 14-8, Richardson hitters stormed back with three of their own.

Melissa trailed, 23-10, before ripping off five-straight last-gasp points, highlighted by kills from Matthews and Blake — but the Lady Eagles soon closed it out.

Against Centennial, Kasson led Melissa with seven kills, followed by Blake’s six and Matthews’ four. Kasson also lead the team in passing with a 2.25 rating as sophomore Brenna Sheriff tallied a 2.12. Junior Sophia Davis collected a team-high 14 set-assists while junior Charley Lane posted seven. Melcher dug up 19 balls to lead the Lady Cards and sophomore Ella Branson and Blake registered seven each.

These Lady Titans presented a different challenge for Melissa, dinking the ball just over the net or lob-serving to an open spot, which was often dead-center in the Lady Cards’ defense. After dropping Set 1, 22-25, Centennial took the next two, 25-8, 25-16.

“They served a lot of balls short, which forced us into some really bad serve-receive,” DePaolo said. “You can’t just put everybody in front of the 10-foot line because then they just throw it over the back. So you have to be ready to go. Your feet have to be moving and you’ve got to be ready to go forward. But you’ve also got to be ready to go backwards… They frustrated us so much doing that and then when they would get a good set, they’d come up and just roll-shot it or tip it.”

“They had some really strong swings but a majority of their kills were ‘roll-it’ or just kind of an 80-percent hit to where we’re not. Coach [Kari] Bensend does a really good job of teaching her kids to play smart. I try to explain to my kids, when you look in the stats it doesn’t say this kill was going 100 miles an hour and this kill was going 10 miles an hour. When it says it was a kill, it doesn’t matter how it happened.”

Set 1 featured eight ties, the last at 22-all, before the Lady Cards pulled away for the win. Melissa had trailed, 22-19, before two Kasson kills helped forge a comeback. After a Blake kill, Kasson ended the set with another.

The Lady Titans romped back in a big way in Set 2, stretching a 10-3 advantage to a virtually insurmountable 19-3. Fortenberry’s kill and an ace — and one more Kasson kill after an extended volley — ended the Lady Cards’ scoring as Centennial finished it off.

Kasson opened Set 3 with a kill and an ace, but the Lady Titans moved ahead, 3-2, and never relinquished the lead. Blake’s kill and an ace helped keep Melissa close, at 11-7, before Centennial’s margin bulged to 16-9 then 20-12. Matthews and Blake added final kills as the Lady Titans went on to seal the deal.