MESQUITE - Melissa volleyball history was made on Saturday in the Class 4A Region 2 finals at Mesquite Poteet High School. The Lady Cardinals and head coach Frank DePaolo stopped district rival Sanger in four sets to punch their ticket to state tournament for the first time in school history.
Melissa claimed Sets 1 and 2 comfortably by counts of 25-18 and 25-16. The Lady Indians answered with a 25-19 win in Set 3 but their charge was short-lived. Melissa bounced back, 25-20, in Set 4 - and into the history books. This was the fourth meeting between the two schools this season. After splitting two regular-season matches, the Lady Cards topped Sanger on Oct. 26 in the District 11-4A first-place tiebreaker.
“You know, there’s a saying,” DePaolo said shortly after speaking with his victorious squad. “‘It’s hard to beat a three times in a year.’ I never said that [to the team]. I said it to myself - I said it to all my friends. I didn’t say it to them. I never let that creep in. When it gets right down to it, it’s not any harder than the first time, except for the pressure you put on yourselves. I did say, ‘We know their weaknesses and let’s exploit them. We know our strengths against then and let’s put those to good use.’”
Asked to name one or two factors that made the difference for the Lady Cards, DePaolo said, “Serve-receive — ours was better than theirs. And getting up two sets was a huge advantage, obviously.” He added, “We felt like we could triple-block No. 14 [Sydney Price] in serve-receive. We only did it if there was a perfect pass to the circle.”
Melissa (38-11) will face Decatur (37-11) in the state semifinals at 11 a.m. on Friday at Curtis Culwell Center in Garland. Needville, the defending state champion, will take on Midlothian Heritage Thursday night.
It was an emotional celebration that spilled onto the court shortly after Melissa’s Susan Blake fired an ace to close out Sanger (30-18) in Set 4. Down that final stretch, two crucial kills by KG Matthews aided the Lady Cards’ push to 23-16.
Big-hitters Caroline Kasson and Blake again led a powerful Melissa attack – and they were again supported by clutch set-assists from Charley Lane and Sophia Davis and a stout defense. Of the Lady Cards’ 47 kills, Blake slapped 18 while Kasson tallied 16. Lane piled up 20 assists and Davis collected 19. Kasson led the team with 18 digs, followed closely by libero Chelsea George’s 16. Abbey Maldonado got up for a team-high four assist blocks. All told, Melissa fired 10 service aces with Kasson’s four and Blake’s three leading the way.
In that decisive fourth set, Melissa went up for good, 13-12, after fighting through four early ties. Real separation followed at 18-14 after kills from Davis and Kasson and a Kasson ace. DePaolo called that series of volleys “a turning point.” Big swings from Kasson and Blake sent the Lady Cards’ lead to 20-15, and the die was cast.
This was Melissa’s third all-time appearance in the regional tournament and its second time to advance to the finals. The Lady Cards reached these regional finals with a four-set victory over Community on Friday night. Sanger reached the finals by stopping Farmersville in five sets that same evening.
“Honesty, I just feel overwhelmed,” Davis said. “That was such an amazing moment. We’ve worked so hard. I feel like [Coach DePaolo] has known what we’ve been capable of and he’s just been pushing us. … His believing in us helped us believe in ourselves. It propelled us.”
“It doesn’t feel real yet,” Lane said. “Our seniors have been playing together since we were in seventh grade.” As for the match’s tight stretches, Lane said, “I think one of the things we’ve done really well this season is keep our composure in those types of moments. Coach DePaolo told us to breathe and play our game. Just chip away, one point at a time.”
Blake added, “We’ve played so many games this year and we’ve come out of holes much bigger than that. We trusted each other, just how well we’ve played this year. It was obviously an intense game, but we knew we could do it and we believed in everyone.”
Lane had this message for those “Red-Red” Lady Cards’ fans. “We love them. They’re the best. We play for ourselves and each other but we represent Melissa, so it’s really cool to have all our friends and family come and watch us.”
“Caroline and Susan are hard to stop,” Sanger head coach Scott Montgomery said. “We had fire here and there, but we had some moments where we just kind of got a little, I think, down. We just made too many mistakes. Not to take anything away from [Melissa]. They earned it today. They fought for it. They pushed harder than we did.”
Montgomery had praise for the play of Lady Indians setter Kenzie Turkoly as well as Jaley Beam on the back row and hitters Price, Gabbi Roelofs and Sydney Price.
Melissa opened Set 1 with a 6-1 burst, boosted by Blake’s three kills and two aces. A Sanger timeout did little to slow the Lady Cards’ push as Davis knocked down a block and Maldonado slapped a deep kill to the middle off a Lane short set. After three-straight Lady Indians hitting errors, Kasson’s ace sent Melissa’s advantage to 14-5. Down, 16-6, Sanger managed three-straight kills before Anna Fortenberry’s middle-kill ended that run. Consecutive Kasson kills and her service ace followed, bringing the set’s end into focus, 23-17. After another big swing by Maldonado, Blake’s kill to the deep left side closed it out.
In Set 2, the Lady Indians scratched out their first lead of the match at 4-2,but it vanished quickly. Lane’s kill and an ace sandwiched three Sanger hitting errors for a 7-4 Melissa lead. Kills from Kasson, Matthews and Blake kept the pressure and after back-to-back Lady Indian misfires, Melissa led, 16-11. Sanger challenged with a block and consecutive aces to trail, 17-15, but two sharp swings from Kasson had the margin back to 20-15. A big no-set slap from Lane on the right side moved Melissa’s edge to 22-15. Soon her tipped-over decider from the same spot ended the set.
With their backs to the wall, the Lady Indians finally got traction in Set 3. Two kills by Turkoly sparked Sanger to a 12-7 lead and a big swing from Price later sent the advantage to 15-10. Two Lady Cards’ timeouts during this stretch failed to stop the momentum. After the Lady Indians pushed on to 19-11, Melissa rallied to within 24-19 before a net-fault serve secured Sanger’s lone win.
Sanger eased to a 6-3 lead in Set 4 but the Region 2 champs responded, first with a Matthews right-side block then with three Blake kills for an 8-7 Melissa lead. The teams scrapped past two more ties before the Lady Cards led for the ultimate time, at 13-12 as noted above. The rest is, as they say, history.