Malaysia Hope was tired of playing the part of the facilitator.
After feeding her hitters for 55 of their own kills, the Ellison setter decided she was going to get in on the action. Squaring up for a second try at match point in a back-and-forth five-set match with scrappy 2A Salado, Hope appeared ready to set 6-foot-2 front-row beast Kaitlyn Shearer for the game-clincher.
But as Shearer bounded toward the net as if expecting the ball, and Salado readied to defend Shearer’s powerful shot, Hope gently sent the ball right into the heart of the unsuspecting Salado defense as host Ellison fought back to win their home-opener Tuesday in five games 15-25, 25-22, 25-21, 18-25, 15-8.
“I was like, ‘OK, Kaitlyn’s coming, I can see her out of the corner of my eye, let me just push it over,’ and they weren’t ready for that,” Hope said.
The trickery clearly caught Salado coach Rachel Lee off guard.
“I thought, because they were ahead in the game, as a coach, that they’d go for an attack right there,” Lee said. “I didn’t have the setter dubbed as that type of player tonight, but if you play against us, we’re vulnerable there sometimes. That was a great move on her part.”
Shearer, sporting a large shiner under her left eye from where the 5-foot-3 Kortni Taylor elbowed her when both went up for a block during a weekend tournament game, led the way with 20 kills and nine blocks.
“I wanted that game bad, it was our first home game, so we had to show out,” Shearer said.
But is was in the pivotal Game 5 that the senior middle blocker really flexed her muscle.
After Taylor helped Ellison (4-7) take a quick 2-1 lead on a pair of set-kills from Hope, Shearer blocked her hard-hitting Salado counterpart, senior Sarah Toler, and then followed that up with a devastating kill between Toler and sophomore Taylor Atwood.
The strong front line play continued as Shearer and outside hitter Amanda Glover combined on another stuff that was surrounded by two unforced Salado errors put Ellison ahead 7-2.
“It’s like I told them, if you have a big hitter that they haven’t stopped, you need to feed that person, and that’s what happened ... she took over,” Ellison coach William De Gracia said of Shearer.
Hope and Shearer bookended a kill by Glover with a pair of unreturnable spikes down the center of the court to go up 11-4. From there, it was all in Hope’s hands.
“We know someone has to lose, we just don’t want it to be us,” Hope said.
Salado (4-5) caught Ellison off guard in Game 1, pulling away thanks to 14 errors by the host Lady Eagles. But Ellison seemed to settle down after that, holding on for victories in Games 2 and 3 despite nearly surrendering large leads late.
“I just think we need to work on finishing the game,” Hope said. “Because when we just need one point, I think it gets to our heads, and we get antsy and we end up making little mistakes.”
Game 4 went entirely in Salado’s favor, though, as the 2A visitors pulled ahead early scoring five straight points on three kills by Toler and one of a team-high 5 aces from Atwood to lead 5-2. Toler powered Salado with 15 kills and seven digs while Katie Kunz added 17 assists.
“Game 4 for us was do-or-die time for us,” Lee said. “I like that these kids thrive under pressure, and that’s what I told them.”