MELISSA — It was about as tight as a volleyball match can be — and the stakes were high. Win and stay one game back of first-place Celina (5-0) at the midpoint of the district race. Lose and fall two games off the pace with five matches left. The setting was Melissa Middle School on Friday; the contestants, Melissa and Aubrey.
After four intense sets of big swings, close calls and thrilling saves, the teams had settled nothing. The Lady Chaps (4-1) claimed 26-24 and 25-20 wins to start the evening but Melissa stormed back to take Sets 3 and 4, 25-17, 25-18.
Late in decisive Set 5, the squads were still knotted, 12-12. But from there, two errant Melissa returns sandwiched around a Lady Chaps kill would end the epic match in Aubrey’s favor, 15-12.
It was a tough pill for Melissa to swallow at home, but all is not lost for the Lady Cards. “Red-Red” fans will recall that Melissa’s current 3-2 district record matches its mark from a year ago - and that team went on to the state semifinals.
This match capped a gut-check week for the Lady Cards who, on Oct. 8, won a similar five-set struggle at Sanger. It that one, Melissa rallied from a 2-1 sets deficit to take Sets 4 and 5 for the win.
“I’m proud of the girls for the week they had,” Lady Cards head coach Frank DePaolo said. “We knew it was a big week. … I was a little disappointed in the way we finished Set 1 against Aubrey. We had the lead once or twice in the 20s and let it slip away. In Set 2, we didn’t fare much better. … That’s a tough way to lose Set 5 but we did take a lot out of it. I told my kids I’m very, very proud of coming back from 0-2, especially against a team that’s as good as you are. It’s really tough to lose the first two against a team that’s a good as you are and then win two in a row.”
Melissa’s Caroline Kasson blew up for 25 kills and teammate Brooklee Waltrip struck for nine. Kasson also led the team with three solo blocks and three service aces, posting 14 digs as well. The Lady Cards’ dig leader was libero Chelsea George with 35. Branson posted a team-high 24 set-assists with two aces, and KG Matthews popped for 22 assists.
Returning to limited action for Melissa was middle Ally Marshall, the squad’s leading blocker before suffering an arm injury over two weeks ago. This night, she logged three kills and a solo block.
Aubrey head coach Whitney Stout said knew this would be a battle. “Anytime you come here, it’s a very tough place to play. … There were several times we just found a way to keep a play alive or keep balls up. Eventually, enough of those over time will add up.”
Up front, the Lady Chaps were still without four-year starter Kaia Saylor due to a broken foot. “It was definitely some growing pains,” Stout of going without Saylor since mid-August. For this match, Stout noted the play of freshman outside hitter Sydney Garrison, middle Katie Schmitz and libero Laney Roos, Aubrey’s only other four-year starter.
After the Lady Chaps claimed Sets 1 and 2, both teams hit the locker rooms as Melissa fans took time to honor their middle school volleyball teams. When play resumed, the Lady Cards quickly turned the tables on the visitors, roaring back to take the next two sets.
“We had a little longer time to talk with them and I think we got our heads straight,” DePaolo said of the 5-minute break. “We made some adjustments, defensive-wise, and I think we came out and executed it really well.”
Melissa shot ahead 10-3 in Set 3, buoyed by kills from Kasson and Matthews and a Branson ace. Aubrey put on a four-point run but in a sign this set would be different, the Lady Cards answered with six-straight points to go up, 18-7. During that stretch, Kasson stroked a kill and two aces while Abbey Maldonado and Matthews pounded out a kill each. The Lady Chaps had two more three-point charges down the stretch but middle kills from Marshall and Maldonado got Melissa to 24-17 and an Aubrey long ball closed out the set.
Still in must-win mode, the Lady Cards buckled down in Set 4 and led 10-4 after George’s ace, kills from Kasson and Matthews, and a block from Saniah Anthony. Melissa kept up the pressure with a Waltrip kill and Marshall’s block, and soon led, 15-7, on back-to-back Aubrey hitting errors. The Lady Chaps drew no closer than 18-14 the rest of the way. Matthews’ right-side, tip-over kill completed Melissa’s comeback from two sets down.
In Set 5, Aubrey jumped out, 5-0, but the Lady Cards weren’t done. A Lady Chaps net-fault serve opened the door and Kasson quickly blasted consecutive outside kills to boost Melissa to within 6-3. Kasson’s next swing completed a 6-2 Lady Cards run and Aubrey went to timeout, up 7-6. The Lady Cards took two leads from there - 8-7 and 9-8 - followed by a logjam at 10-10 on Waltrip’s big slap from the outside. The Lady Chaps then moved to a crucial 12-10 advantage on two kills from the middle. After a Melissa timeout, the Lady Cards answered a final time — with Marshall’s middle kill followed by an Aubrey shot that sailed long. The Lady Chaps called timeout and all the points from there were Aubrey’s.
At Sanger, Kasson rolled to a team-high 17 kills, Waltrip swatted 10 and Matthews collected eight. Alexis McCombs posted two solo blocks and Waltrip recorded two aces. Matthews also logged a team-high 19 assists while Branson had 15. George’s 18 digs led Melissa and Kasson was next with 11.