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Lucas Lovejoy claims 10th volleyball championship 5A state title sweep

Leopards deliver the hits in three-set win against Liberty Hill

GARLAND, TEXAS - On Saturday, Lucas Lovejoy brought out the hits.

The Leopards turned in a dominating performance at the net, getting 35 kills through the first two sets and 50 for the match, as they went on to a sweep against Liberty Hill for the Class 5A championship. Lovejoy prevailed, 25-18, 25-23, 25-19, at the Curtis Culwell Center.

“It doesn’t feel real yet, I feel like we have another game tomorrow to prep for, but we don’t; we’re happy with where we’re at right now," Lovejoy coach Natalie Puckett said. "We’ve got 22 girls on our roster and they chose to buy in to our one destination.”

Saturday's win gave Lovejoy (34-10) its 10th state championship in program history. It was also the Leopards' fourth state title in the past five seasons, with last season the only time their season didn't end in a celebratory dogpile.

Needless to say, the returning players used that as motivation to get back and continue the team's tradition of success.

“We used that chip on our shoulder definitely to give us motivation, to work hard and know what we’re working towards, and I’m so proud of our team and our coaches," senior setter Bethanie Wu said. "We put in countless hours that goes into practices that other teams aren’t putting in the same time and effort that we are, and I think it really showed and paid off in the end.”

Of the 50 kills Lovejoy utilized in its sweep, five players finished with at least six kills. Leading all players in kills was a freshman, outside hitter Gentry Barker, who ended up with 17, while teammate Shelby Burriss had 12, along with a .357 hitting percentage.

Barker, who also had 11 digs. was named the MVP following Saturday's title match.

“It’s really fun, I love my team," Barker said. "We all play on, like our best effort and best show that we could, and I’m so blessed to be on this team with everyone; they’re all such loving girls who all try their best and encourage each other.”

What also helped the Leopards do their thing around the net was the play of a pair of college signees on the back row, Wu (a Yale signee) and libero McKenna Brand (who has signed with Connecticut).

Wu finished with 40 assists and 10 digs, while Brand had 21 digs. 

“I said this (after Friday's semifinal win), just the composure of these two, popping those balls up that you think are down and McKenna is just flying everywhere and putting it in system for Beth to be able to put it wherever she wants, it’s awesome," Puckett said.

“Our goal was to speed up our tempo, be calm on our side, run our middles and these girls did that. With that, our middles came off early and created gaps for our outsides and our right-sides and Beth noticed that and was able to put the ball where she needed to put it.”

In the opening set, Lovejoy broke an 8-all score with three straight points, all on kills from three different players. Later, with the Leopards up 17-14, they reeled off six straight points to get in position to close things out.

The Panthers (46-9) made a brief surge, getting within five at 23-18, but a kill from Barker and Wu serving a ball that landed squarely in the back center area without being touched gave the set to Lovejoy.

Lovejoy then jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the second set. Liberty Hill shook that off and crept back into the match, and even led late, 22-21.

But Barker's kill tied things up; then a tip from Anna Barr put Lovejoy back in front. Though the Leopards made an attack error on the next play to force another tie, Lovejoy's hitting came through once more as kills on the subsequent two plays from Skylar Jackson and Burriss put Lovejoy a set away from the title.

In the third set, trailing 14-13, Lovejoy seized momentum for good by scoring nine of the next 10 points, capped by Barker's cross-court kill that was not returned for a 22-15 advantage.

Barker also had a kill to put Lovejoy one point away from the championship. Then appropriately enough, the Leopards finished off the sweep with their 50th and final kill, with Jackson sending one over.

“I think the growth we’ve seen has been really big and it’s been really cool to watch because I know last year when we lost, it was devastating," Brand said. "We knew we could do it, but we just didn’t hit the right mark, but I think coming back this year, we all wanted it.

"We wanted it so much more because we knew what it felt like to not have it, so the preparation into that, I feel like we all put in everything we had just to be able to make it here again.”

Annie Witt and Taylor Gaines each had nine kills for Liberty Hill, and Witt also had 11 digs. Ava Hight and Carson Glenn each recorded 14 assists as well for the Panthers, who were making their first-ever appearance in a state title match.

-- Buck Ringgold | | @sblivetx

Lead photo by Michael Horbovetz.