MELISSA — Melissa’s Lady Cardinals triumphed over Celina in four sets on Tuesday, Oct. 3, in a crucial showdown for first place in District 11-4A. Melissa’s winning ledger for this battle at the Bird Cage showed, 26-24, 15-25, 25-20, 25-23 — and each win featured a Lady Cards rally with a gutsy finish.

Melissa, Celina and Aubrey now share the district’s top spot with identical 3-1 records.

The victory was huge for the Lady Cards’ district-title aspirations, coming four days after a disappointing loss at Aubrey. “We were going to walk out of here probably in a three-way tie for first or we were going to walk out of here in third place,” Melissa head coach Frank DePaolo said. “I didn’t mention that to my kids. I just told them, ‘Hey, forget Friday. Let’s move forward.’ I said, ‘We have one loss. Win-out and you win the district.’”

Noteworthy as well: This was DePaolo’s first win over his former team since coming to Melissa before the 2016 season. “We were so hungry to beat Celina after missing out on both opportunities last year,” he said. “I really felt like the girls had it in them today to do it. It was just whether they could after Set 2. They really showed grit in Set 3 and Set 4. Every time we won a set today it was from behind.”

The match featured ebbs and flows, with frequent momentum shifts. “When we were on those high points, we were following our game plan,” DePaolo said. “When we took those timeouts, especially when we were down, I said, ‘Hey, you’ve gotten away from the game plan. You’re not hitting it where we said we were going to hit it. You’re going back to where you feel comfortable instead of where we know we can be effective.’”

All told, the Lady Cards registered 36 kills, with sophomore Caroline Kasson’s 16 leading the way and junior Susan Blake next with 12. Kasson also led Melissa hitters with a .250 average.

“Overall, as a team, we didn’t hit well,” DePaolo said. “We had a lot of errors and I think they forced us into a lot of errors. They’ve got such a great defense. So we were trying to do things out of character. I think a majority of those hitting errors happened in Set 2. We got so out of it. I think if you take Set 2 out, we probably hit about .250, which is really, really good against a team like that.”

DePaolo said he was most proud of the Lady Cards’ blocking. “We had 10 assist-blocks, which means we had five balls actually hit the floor on a block. But we touched so many more, slowed them down for our kids or [sent them] back on their side and forced them into errors.”

Freshman Abbey Maldonado led Melissa with three assist-blocks, while juniors Anna Fortenberry and Charley Lane each collected two.

Junior Sophia Davis tallied a team-high 15 set-assists for Melissa and Lane picked up 13.

Kasson tallied a team-high 19 digs and rounding out the double-digit-dig performances were senior Brittany Melcher with 18, Lane with 13, and Davis with 10.

With only five Melissa service aces for the match, DePaolo noted, “Celina’s got a great serve-receive.” He added, “But we were very aggressive with our serves, just tried to knock them out. … We were trying to take their best hitter out of the game and they were trying to take our two best hitters out of the game. One tactic to use is to serve tough and make the serve stay behind the 10-foot line so they can’t hit - and then you get the first good hit. That’s what we tried to do and it worked out really well tonight.”

Melissa got out to a 5-1 lead in Set 1, boosted by three Blake kills and one from Kasson. Celina hitting errors would aid the Lady Cards’ move to 9-4 before the Lady Bobcats pushed back to tie at 11-11. Celina took its first lead of the night, 13-12, on a Melissa ball in the net but five more ties would occur before the Lady Bobcats eased to a 19-17 advantage on a deep corner-kill. Fortenberry answered with a tip-over kill but three straight Celina hits soon sent the margin to 23-19.

DePaolo called timeout and soon after, Blake’s kill drew the Lady Cards to within 23-21. Melissa took the lead, 24-23, after the Lady Bobcats twice failed to get the ball over the net. A Celina kill knotted the score once more before Blake’s cross-court, down-the-line strike put Melissa on top for good, 25-24. A Fortenberry/Blake combo-block ended the set.

Celina erupted with an 8-1 start in Set 2 and dominated the frame throughout. A 10-0 run sent the Lady Bobcats’ lead to 19-4 before Melissa chipped back to trail, 24-15 - sparked by two kills each from Kasson and Blake, and single shots from senior Aubrey Grantham and Davis — but Celina closed it out.

In Set 3, the Lady Cards rallied from 18-14 down, as Kasson blew up down the stretch aided by sets from Lane and Davis. First, Kasson’s kill knotted the score at 18 then her tip-over gave Melissa a 20-18 edge. Kasson then belted two straight kills to push the Lady Bobcats to the brink, 24-20, before placing a final tip-kill for the win. Set 3 featured eight ties and Celina led most of the way.

In Set 4, six ties preceded the teams settling at 9-9 before Melcher’s service ace and a kill from Blake helped Melissa to a 15-11 lead. Celina wasn’t done, though, knotting things at 16-16 with a kill then pulling ahead, 19-16. But, again, the Lady Cards recovered for a photo-finish. This time, a Blake kill tied the score at 23-all then — after an errant Celina shot — the match ended on Blake’s deep, sharp rocket off the outstretched hand of a Lady Bobcat.