CELINA — In District 11-4A’s game of the year — Melissa versus Celina for all the marbles — the Lady Cardinals came back in dramatic fashion from two sets down to win in five on Friday, Oct. 20 at Celina High School. After dropping Sets 1 and 2, 22-25 and 19-25, Melissa turned the tables for solid 25-15 wins in the next two frames, then prevailed, 15-13, in a nail-biting fifth-set classic.


This was Melissa’s first outright volleyball district championship since 2014. The Lady Cards were district co-champions with Anna in 2015. What does this victory mean to Melissa head coach Frank DePaolo, now in his second year with the Lady Cards after coaching at Celina?


“Everything,” he said, as his team’s post-match celebration shifted into high gear. “When we started off the year, our word was ‘grit.’ We showed it tonight. Going down, 0-2, against such a great team as Celina — they’ve got a great coach, they’ve got great kids. I coached those kids two years ago. … I’ve got chill-bumps right now. The win means everything to this program, it means everything to our kids. It took an entire team effort. We changed our lineup in Set 3, 4 and 5 and it worked. The next girl up was ready off the bench and that was the difference.


“Celina had done a good job. They came into the game hitting differently than when we played them the first time. (Damie Morgan), their outside hitter, had been hitting wide on us all night against us at our place so we came ready to block her down the line. And she started hitting a bunch of shots cross-court. So we adjusted toward to the end of Set 2. … Plus, we took the momentum from them. Even though we lost the first two sets, they were close. When we won in Set 3 and 4, it was 25-15, 25-15. I think we stole a bunch of momentum from them.”


Melissa also took the season’s first meeting with Celina, 3 sets to 1, on Oct. 3 at The Bird Cage.


Junior Charley Lane lead the Lady Cards for the night with three of the team’s six service aces, while junior Sophia Davis slapped two and sophomore Caroline Kasson added one. Of Melissa’s 49 kills, junior Susan Blake collected a team-high 22 — with one just hitting error for a .467 hitting percentage, her best mark of the season. Kasson followed with 14 kills, while junior Anna Fortenberry and freshman KG Matthews posted four each and senior libero Brittany Melcher and senior Aubrey Grantham each had two.


Sophomore Ella Branson posted the team’s top passer rating with a 2.25, with Melcher right behind her at 2.23. Fortenberry tallied two of Melissa’s two solo blocks and Blake had the other. Of the Lady Cards’ 10 assist-blocks, Kasson and freshman Abbey Maldonado collected three apiece, while Fortenberry, Blake and Matthews each registered one.


Melissa tallied a season-high 101 digs, with Melcher’s 31 leading the way. Kasson was next with 24, and Davis, Lane and Blake followed with 10 each. Lane and Davis also posted 20 set-assists each and Melcher added three.


The Lady Cards’ never led in the match until Set 3, when Maldonado’s kill gave Melissa a 2-1 advantage. Four Celina hitting errors quickly moved the margin to 6-1 before Kasson’s big swat down the middle made it 7-3. Back-to-back Matthews kills kept Melissa up, 12-8, and Grantham’s tip-over and a deep kill-shot from Kasson would stretch the lead to 19-10. Consecutive Blake blocks brought Celina to the brink, 24-14, before a Melcher kill closed out the win.


Solid preparation and heads-up thinking by Lane in Set 4 led to a crucial turn of events with Melissa up, 13-9. Lane looked across the net and noted that Celina was out of rotation — the wrong Lady Bobcat was serving — and she notified DePaolo.


“Every match I give the kids the [opposing team’s] lineups and make them write them down in their journal,” DePaolo said. “They write down what the opposing team’s rotation is supposed to be, who’s in the front row at all times and who’s in the back row. Charley knew the server shouldn’t be whoever was back there.”


After confirming Lane’s claim with assistant coach Ashley McCarter, DePaolo notified the officials. From there, a long discussion followed on proper application of the rule, with DePaolo prevailing. After the 15-minute delay, play resumed with a new score: Melissa 14, Celina 7 — a huge boost for the Lady Cards in this win-or-go-home set.


From there, the Lady Cards remained in control, with kills from Matthews and Blake down the stretch. Leading, 23-15, a big swing from Fortenberry and Lane’s tip-kill ended the set.


Set 5 was tight all the way. Melissa managed 2-point leads four times and Celina had 1-point edges three times en route to the climatic finish — and there were seven ties. Melcher dug up one ball while sitting down, having gone to the floor on a previous hit. An ace from Lane, a Blake kill and a Celina net-ball had created three of the Lady Cards’ 2-point margins, but after Kasson’s big swing moved the lead to 13-11 a Lady Bobcat hitting error presented a 3-point advantage for the first time and Celina called timeout.


After the break, drama continued as Melissa hitting errors allowed the Lady Bobcats back to within a point, at 14-13, which sent DePaolo to timeout. When play resumed, Blake’s big hit from the left side — which Celina sent back over the net but out of bounds — ended the match.


Said DePaolo, “When Suzie hit that last ball and it went off the block and out of bounds, it took me just a second to go, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s over. We win!’ You’ve been working so hard all season long for that moment right there and when it comes, you just want to make sure that it’s really there before you start to celebrate.”