By Walter Villa
SAN MARCOS, Texas – It was a night when the winning players seemed crushed halfway through the match, when the losing team accomplished something unique, and when the reigning champions proved their mental fortitude.
Lake Travis (Austin, Texas) – as it turns out -- isn’t perfect, and the Cavaliers had their single-season streak of 122 consecutive winning sets broken. But the Cavaliers regrouped to beat Foster (Richmond, Texas) 25-11, 22-25, 25-17, 25-22 in a Class 4A state semifinal Thursday night at Strahan Coliseum on the campus of Texas State University.
“It was upsetting,” Lake Travis outside hitter Sierra Patrick said. “We just had to get over it and go to the next thing.”
The next thing for Lake Travis (49-0) is Saturday’s state final against 36-13 Pearce (Richardson, Texas).
Lake Travis, No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings, is bidding for its second straight state title. But it figures to get a challenge from Pearce, which split two matches with the Cavaliers last year.
It was the second match, however, that became an instant classic. In the 2010 state semifinal, Pearce won the first two sets before Lake Travis roared back to win the next three on its way to the first girls’ volleyball championship in school history.
Lake Travis hadn’t lost a set since … until Thursday.
After winning the first set with ease, the score was tied at 18 in the second. That’s when Foster took control, scoring four straight points. The Falcons were up 24-20, but Lake Travis saved two set points.
At that point, Lake Travis surely believed it could pull out another minor miracle like the one in which they rallied from down 16-7 earlier this season. But Foster senior Erin Fairs showed some touch when she tipped a ball over the Lake Travis block, just inside the left sideline.
Lake Travis coach Jennifer Kazmierski said she knew Foster was tough.
“I watched them on video for three straight days,” she said. “They’re athletic, they don’t let the ball drop, and they stay after it to try to win the rally every single point.”
After Fairs’ shot went down, the Lake Travis players looked dazed and confused –- and who could blame them?
It had been 364 days since they last lost a set.
When they got back to their bench, Kazmierski made sure to get them focused. The perfect-sets streak was never the goal, she told them. The state title was the real prize, and that was still in play.
“Initially, they were disappointed,” Kazmierski said. “But as soon as I told them that, their eyes got big, and they went, ‘Yeah!’ And they were right back in.”
The third set was close -- Foster trailed by one at 17-16 -- before Lake Travis took control. The Cavaliers led the fourth set 21-14 when Foster scored six straight.
The Cavaliers rallied to take a 24-20 lead, and, after faltering on two match points, a Patrick spike put the match away for Lake Travis.
Amy Neal, the MVP of last year’s Class 4A state finals, was again the star for Lake Travis. She had match-highs in kills (24), kill percentage (.312) and digs (17).
The Cavaliers also got contributions from Patrick (11 kills), Katy Beals (33 assists), Mackenzie Mayo (16 digs) and Claire McCown (.267 kill percentage).
“They have a million great players,” Pearce coach Jason Nicholson said of the Cavaliers, his opponent on Saturday.
Pearce has a great player of its own in 6-2 senior middle blocker Shelby Sullivan. She had a phenomenal match in Tuesday’s first semifinal, a 25-17, 26-24, 12-25, 25-21 win over No. 29 Randall (Amarillo, Texas). She had match-highs in kills (20) and kill percentage (.541) to end Randall’s season at 42-5.
Remarkably, Sullivan had no attack errors, no service errors and only one return error. For perspective, consider that Neal on Thursday had nine attack errors, four service errors and two return errors – and she’s one of the best players in the nation.
If Sullivan can repeat her performance or even come close on Saturday, an upset is possible.
“I can’t wait to play them,” Sullivan said of Lake Travis. “I just want to play them so bad.”
Patrick feels the same way. She has known Sullivan since sixth grade, and the two are going to play together for Texas A&M next season.
As for Saturday’s final, perhaps Lake Travis can now relax after losing a set.
But Patrick dismissed that notion.
“The pressure’s always on,” she said. “There’s always pressure.”