LIBERTY HILL — Gatesville lost more than a match Tuesday. The Hornets potentially lost their chance to win a district championship.
Liberty Hill delivered Gatesville its lone defeat from the first half of District 8-3A play, and the Hornets desperately needed to avenge the loss to pull even in the standings. But the No. 23 Lady Panthers defended their home floor, kept their district record unblemished and, barring a complete collapse, secured the District 8-3A championship by sweeping the season series with a 25-17, 25-16, 25-17 victory.
“I just don’t see anyone in our district beating them,” said Gatesville head coach Rickey Phillips. “But we can’t let this thing last any more than the bus ride home. We’ve got to get back to campus and start working because we’ve got four district games left, and, at this stage, we are still guaranteed nothing.”
The Hornets have to win out and hope for Liberty Hill to lose three of its final four games in order to win the district title, but with the way the Panthers (21-17, 6-0) have been playing, the possibility of such a scenario playing out is far-fetched.
Gatesville (29-5, 4-2) appears to be playing for second place, at best, and could be in store for a third-place finish or worse should it struggle over the duration of district.
Luckily for the Hornets, history is on their side.
Gatesville finished either first or second in its district standings in each of the previous nine seasons, losing three district matches just once (2007). The Hornets have not missed the playoffs since 2002.
But with four teams fighting for three postseason berths, the Hornets know they have to finish strong to continue the streaks.
“We just have to play our best because if it works out for us and we go to the playoffs, we can’t have a bad night,” senior Ashley Cook said. “If we lose one, we are done, and we don’t want to lose out. We want to keep going. We have to play to the best of our abilities, and, if we don’t, then we don’t deserve to win.”
The Hornets did not put forth their best effort at Liberty Hill.
Beginning midway through the first set, the Panthers overpowered Gatesville, using a 17-7 run to secure the first set then jumped out to an 18-10 lead in Game 2 to take a 2-0 advantage. In the third set, the Hornets fell behind 14-7 but managed to pull within four points on five occasions, but could never get closer, and Liberty Hill won the final four points of the set to clinch the victory.
“We had a couple mental mistakes (early), and you’ve got to shake those off,” Phillips said. “You can’t let those things faze you. ... In a big game like this, you can’t really have a conscious. If you make a mistake, you’ve got to come right back and stay aggressive.”
Gatesville, however, killed its chances for potential comebacks with unforced errors, and in a match dominated at the net by Liberty Hill, the mistakes gave both points and momentum to the Panthers.
The Hornets struggled to string together points, though, scoring three or more consecutive points just six times all match. Liberty Hill, on the other hand, finished with 12 such runs.
Middle blocker Cook led Gatesville with 12 kills and seven blocks, while teammate Lauren Nichols added seven kills and a dozen digs, complementing libero Megan Chambers’ team-high 21 digs.
“I remember telling everyone that if we lost a point, we had to get five more back,” Cook said. “We couldn’t just go back and forth because that is not how we are going to win.”