HAMILTON — Gatesville showed its heart, and then Stephenville ripped it out.
In a Class 3A regional quarterfinal, the Lady Hornets displayed the hustle that has defined the team throughout the season, but, in the end, they were simply outplayed by Stephenville and lost 25-13, 25-21, 25-21.
The Hornets played from behind for most of the match and could not climb out of significant holes to start the first and third sets, but Gatesville head coach Rickey Phillips, who admitted his team showed tentativeness at times, could not fault his players’ effort.
“I think we were kind of worried about making a mistake whenever we got down two, three or four points, and it kind of showed,” Phillips said. “And it was in all phases.
“But I’ll say this for the kids, on the very last point of the game, they were on the floor, diving and trying to make a play. You have to love kids like that, and I sure do.”
After giving up six straight points to start the match and falling into a 22-6 deficit, the Lady Hornets began showing their grit by winning seven of the next nine points before succumbing to fate. The late run, however, injected life into Gatesville, and the Hornets jumped out to an 8-4 lead to start the second set.
The Honeybees responded with a 9-1 run to claim a 13-9 advantage, but Gatesville answered with a 7-1 outburst to reclaim the lead at 14-13.
Lady Hornets middle blocker Ashley Cook, who recorded team-highs with 13 kills and six blocks, was responsible for three consecutive kills during the run.
The teams exchanged points until Stephenville finally surged to victory with a set-clinching 8-2 run.
Nevertheless, Phillips believed his team’s run to end the opening set was critical, infusing his players with confidence for the remainder of the match.
“That was big,” Phillips said. “In the first part of Set 1, they were hurting us, but we were doing a lot of self-inflicted stuff.
“I told the kids that we had to start making plays in the end, and we did. We finished up pretty strong despite the loss and came back in Game 2 and carried some momentum.”
Unfortunately for the Hornets, they reverted back in the third set and committed a number of unforced errors en route to an 11-4 deficit.
And, again, the hole was too deep to climb out of.
Gatesville (35-6) scored five straight points to pull within two points, 11-9, but for every run, Stephenville had an answer.
The Honeybees immediately increased their advantage to 18-12 before holding a 23-17 lead. Gatesville won four consecutive points, but could not get any closer.
“Not a lot went our way, but that is no excuse,” said Gatesville outside hitter Lauren Nichols, who finished with eight kills and seven digs. “They were just a really good team.
“Our team doesn’t give up. We have a lot of heart, and I’m proud of them.”
Nichols, along with Cook, Megan Chambers, Paige Chambers and Madeleine Lamar comprised the senior core of the team and were instrumental to Gatesville’s success, according to Phillips.
“Back on July 9, the first day of open gym, those seniors were great leaders from that day on,” Phillips said. “I knew back in July that we would have the opportunity to be in a game like this just because of their leadership. They’ve done what a senior class should do, and I’m going to bawl like a baby when those guys graduate. I may even bawl on the bus ride home tonight.”
The senior group combined for 36 digs in the loss, personifying the grit Phillips, who has led Gatesville to 10 consecutive playoff appearances, four straight regional quarterfinals and won seven district titles, has seen daily since the season began.
“This was the best team I’ve ever had as far as hustle,” Phillips said.
“It was relentless pursuit on every play. The kids never give up, and that doesn’t mean we are perfect, but these kids hustle all the time. “The hustle, intensity and effort by this crew is unmatched by any of my teams.”