The sweat beading down Rickey Phillips’ face was as much the result of the emotional roller coaster he just experienced as the sweltering heat pervading the Ellison gym.
Minutes earlier the Gatesville head volleyball coach was beside himself with frustration after a head-scratching communication error let an Ellison return drop between three Hornets and give the host Lady Eagles game point at 15-14 in a back-and-forth Game 5.
“As a coach, given what we have, you know (mistakes) are going to happen, but you can’t accept that and you can’t let your kids accept that,” Phillips said. “This is the varsity level, and that’s not the way we want to play.”
With the pressure at a fever pitch, Gatesville responded as outside hitter Lexi Hall stuffed Bailey Wade’s kill try and middle blocker Brianna Poe’s front-row kill skipped just inside the Ellison back line to seal a tense 25-17, 20-25, 20-25, 29-27, 17-15 victory in the season-opener for both programs Tuesday afternoon.
“We needed to pick it up, we had to step up and play our part; we had to make good passes, sets and hits, and we just had to play like we knew how,” said middle blocker Kayla McGiboney, who led the Hornets with 15 kills and two blocks.
“We played like Gatesville the last two games.”
With both teams battling a nasty mix of first-game jitters and rampant inexperience, Gatesville took advantage of 20 Ellison errors and scored 14 of the final 19 points in Game 1 after the Lady Eagles blew an early 7-2 lead.
“When you go back and forth, one-and-one, when they get that extra point (because of an error), it hurts,” Ellison head coach William De Gracia said. “But if you’re not mentally strong, they’ll score five more on you, and that’s what they did at the beginning.”
But after being swept last season at the hands of a Gatesville team that eventually advanced to the Class 3A regional quarterfinals, Ellison’s ability to fight back and battle tooth-and-nail gave De Gracia something to build on.
“I don’t mind losing like this, it was just little mistakes that we have to clean up, because we could have won, we had our chances to win,” he said.
The Lady Eagles repaid the favor in the second game, parlaying 15 Hornet miscues to tie the match. Six straight service points from junior Amanda Glover gave Ellison a 22-16 lead. Glover then sparked a 7-3 closing run in Game 3 for consecutive 25-20 wins.
Neither team could string together more than three points in Game 4. There were 19 ties, including at 27-27 on the heels of a Wade kill down the front of McGiboney.
But a double-clutch lift by Ellison senior Kira Grinier was immediately followed by a devastating Hall kill that deflected off the outstretched hands of Glover and forced a fifth game at 29-27.
“We were all nervous but we pulled through,” said Poe, who registered five of her nine kills in the last two games.
A rotation error by Ellison spotted Gatesville an early 5-2 advantage in Game 5, but a string of six consecutive points on Hornet errors gave the Lady Eagles an 8-5 lead.
That’s when the frustration started to build for Phillips, who called a timeout midway through the run.
But it was the Lady Eagles’ overall youth and inexperience that made the biggest difference as a service error into the net by Ellison’s Hannah Zly tied it at 15-all and gave Gatesville just enough momentum to finish it off.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win,” Phillips said. “That’s what I told our kids, in the long run good teams find ways to win game when things aren’t going well.”