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GARLAND, TEXAS - For the third year in a row, Bushland and Gunter faced off in the finals of the UIL 3A championship.

Now, Bushland has the upper hand in terms of victories.

Bushland beat Gunter, 25-22, 25-23, 20-25, 25-234 in the first of four championship games on Saturday at the Curtis Culwell Center.

Last year, Gunter won in three sets, while the 2021 title went to Bushland in four sets.

The championship is the seventh overall for the west Texas school and the third in three years with 3A titles in 2021 and 2020.

“When you are from the 806, it is always expected to be here,” said Bushland coach Jason Culpepper, already a member of the Texas Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. “It is something we take on as a volleyball community; Amarillo, Bushland, Canyon and the surrounding areas. We’re excited to come here and play volleyball. We think about what’s next, how we will make it happen and we will work our hardest.”

The Falcons (42-6) pulled away late to win the first set, breaking a 21-all tie. Jayce Ornelas broke the tie with a kill, followed by kills from Hanna Samford and Amber Hatfield, which ended the set.

Gunter (34-12) took an early lead, 8-7, on a kill by Chloe Johnson in the second set. The set was tied 10 other times after that tie-breaking kill.

With the score tied at 22, an error by Gunter, followed by kills by Ava Permenter and Abby Howell ended the set in favor of Bushland.

“I wanted to win for this year’s team and the team from last year,” said Howell, a West Texas A&M softball signee who finished with a team-high 14 kills.

Gunter stayed alive with a win in the third set. Tied at 12, the Tigers started to pull away after a kill by Johnson. They never trailed after that, though the Falcons pulled within once on two occasions.

Gunter held a six-point lead, 19-13, but Bushland rallied back to forge a tie at 21.

Then, it was back-and-forth from there until Bushland scored the final three points. Lilyann Shannon and Ornelas had kills during that stretch.

Shannon finished with 12 kills and two blocks, while Howell also had two blocks to share for the team lead.

Johnson had a game-high 21 kills while adding 12 digs and 3 blocks for Gunter. Madison Smith had 16 kills and four blocks, while Makena Fady also reached double-digits with 10 kills.

Brelee Mauldin dished out 43 assists for the Tigers.

Bushland finished the year with 18 straight wins — 16 of them sweeps.

“It’s different than last year for both teams,” Culpepper said. “There is totally different teams, different personalities. You can throw out the last year and the year before besides the rivalry. Gunter will always be good, but each year is different.”

Three takeaways

Mentor vs. student

You have to go back more than 20 years, but Culpepper was coaching at Dalhart High School to the matchup that happened on Saturday.

On the opposing sideline for Gunter was coach Torree Winchell. In her first year at the helm — after two years guiding Wollforth Frenship — she took the Tigers to the finals.

Years ago, she was a player under Culpepper at Dalhart, a town near the Texas-New Mexico-Oklahoma border. Culpepper coached her from 2001-04.

“You talk to your team about working really hard and realize that dream of playing in the state finals,” Culpepper said. “I wish every coach had that opportunity … it’s such a great thing. She said to me it is amazing (to be here) and that little Dalhart girl would give anything to play in his game. She said it was a dream come true to help her team do that. My response is the exact same way. To see a little girl I coach realize one of her dreams of being in the state championship game is real fulfilling to me. I’m really proud of her and I told her that.”

Winchell got a little choked up talking about the relationship with her and Culpepper.

“He’s been here multiple times and he expressed he was proud of me, which I appreciated,” she said. “I have a whole new appreciation because because I pull for these girls, so kind of a like a full circle out there.” 

Following family tradition

Bushland’s Mackenzie Sims was named the MVP of the finals with a line that featured 10 kills, 15 digs, 4 aces, 2 blocks and 30 assists.

In the 3-0 semifinal win against Central Heights, she had 17 assists, 12 digs and 7 kills.

“It feels great,” Sims said of winning the plaque. “Working with this team and how hard we fought to get back here.”

The junior is the third member of her family to bring home a state title following older sisters Jalee (who played at Lubbock Christian University) and Ansley.

Same time, next year?

As mentioned before this was the third straight title game but it is also the fourth straight year the two teams met in the state tournament.

In 2020, Bushland had a three-set win in the semifinals on the way to the crown.

“We are always chasing a state title and it just happened they have to the past four or five years,” Howell said. “If we meet them again next year, I will be here.”

The two teams have met six times since 2020 and Bushland is 4-2. Both of Gunter’s wins came last year — in a tournament and then the state tournament.

“Since freshman year it’s always been Gunter vs. Bushland,” said Mauldin, who signed with Arkansas-Fort Smith to play volleyball last week. “I don’t want to say it is expected but I think it is a game people are waiting to happen.”

-- Cody Thorn | @sblivetx