It would be wrong to call it stage fright, but the No. 4 Tyler Junior College volleyball team proved it could use a little more seasoning.
Third-ranked Blinn won the battle of unbeatens, 3-1, before 700 raucous fans Thursday night at Wagstaff Gymnasium. The Lady Bucs fought off three set points in the opening game before winning 27-25, 27-29, 25-14, 25-18.
Blinn (22-0, 4-0 conf.) beat TJC (16-1, 3-1) for the 10th straight time in the series, but the Lady Bucs could have very easily gone down 2-0 if not for some late-game poise in the opener.
“That’s what we do. We don’t panic,” Blinn coach David Rehr said. “We’ve been down in games and I don’t try to force timeouts. They understand what they have to do; they can figure it out on the court on their own.
“We’re experienced, that’s the difference between coach Shirley’s team and mine right now. I’ve got 10 sophomores … everybody on the court except one is a sophomore.”
In contrast, freshmen Ivana Bulajic, Jacqueline Santos and Lindsey Jones were the top hitters for TJC as they combined for 34 kills in the match.
TJC coach Ronda Shirley said the loss — and playing on a big stage — will benefit her team.
“I do think it will be (a benefit),” she said. “We played kind of down to Paris (on Tuesday). If we would have played like we did in a few of the games against Paris, Blinn would have blown us out in three.
“I was proud of how they really came out and stuck with them point for point, and when we got down we would push back. I felt like they did a good job of not getting too rattled by errors and not getting too worried when Blinn would come storming back because they are a very good team, traditionally.
“Overall, I’m really pleased at how we played.”
One big key for Blinn was limiting TJC’s power server, sophomore Anuhea Keanini, to eight service points. All but one of the points came in the first two games.
“We actually made a conscious effort to be put our best returners back when she was serving, or avoid certain situations when she was serving,” Rehr said. “I made a mistake in Game 2 at not making the switch earlier; I thought I could sneak by with what we had.”
The Apache Ladies took a page from Blinn’s rally material by staving off three set points in Game 2 and pulling out a 29-27 victory to square the match at 1-1.
After the intermission, Blinn came out and owned Game 3. The Lady Bucs set the tone early with block winners and then went on a 10-1 run to end the game.
In a tight fourth game, the Apache Ladies battled back to tie it at 15-15 before a hitting error, a violation and a Blinn kill made it 18-15. TJC cut the deficit to three — one more time — with a Jones kill and had their toughest server on the line.
However, Keanini served into the net and then Bulajic was wide on a kill attempt, setting the stage for the Lady Bucs to clinch the match and overcome a hostile crowd.
“It was a beautiful environment, how volleyball is supposed to be played with this kind of crowd,” the Blinn coach said. “You never get this in junior college — it’s rare.”
Added the TJC coach, “I was excited with the crowd and excited to see people wanting to come out and see what I feel were two good teams stepping on the court to compete.”
The Apache Ladies return to action Monday at Lon Morris for a 6 p.m. start. Blinn is off until next Thursday at home against Trinity Valley.