Seemingly in control of the volleyball match, and headed for victory in four games, the Apache Ladies suddenly lost their killer instinct. Panola rallied to force a Game 5 — and was four points from an upset — before Tyler Junior College got back in the swing of things.
The No. 3 Apache Ladies erased a four-point deficit and won four of the final five points to finish off No. 18 Panola, 23-25, 25-17, 25-17, 24-26, 15-12, Thursday night at Wagstaff Gymnasium.
Sadie Hilburn, a 5-6 sophomore from Whitehouse, clinched the match with a kill between two blockers. TJC (20-1, 6-1 Region XIV) trailed 10-6 in the final set before dialing up the power as Jacqueline Santos had two kills from the middle row to give the home team a 12-11 lead.
Panola (12-7, 4-3) followed with a hitting error, and TJC sophomore Haydn Beatty put down a kill from the middle to make it 14-11. The Fillies won the next point behind another back-row kill from sophomore Josiane Santos, but Hilburn hit the clincher with Panola serving.
“I was more concerned because I just felt like they didn’t have any more fire and intensity. They almost seemed like they were beaten,” TJC coach Ronda Shirley said of her team not closing out Panola in four.
“I just told them, ‘If you think that, (then) it’s going to happen. You have to turn your mentality around. We are going to go out playing strong, we’re not playing soft. We’ve got to swing on the ball.’ And they did. I know Sadie was probably nervous in that last swing, going up against two big blocks, but she swung at it and did it for us.”
TJC had control of the match at the midway point as Panola had trouble dealing with big-hitters Jacqueline Santos, a 6-1 freshman from Brazil; and Ivana Bulajic, a 6-3 freshman from Serbia. Santos finished with 22 kills, five blocks and 12 digs while Bulajic totaled 18 kills and three blocks.
Hilburn contributed 14 digs and won 13 points on serve. Sophomore setter Anuhea Keanini rang up 54 assists, four blocks, five aces and 11 digs. The Hawaiian also won 13 points off her powerful jump serve.
The Apache Ladies had two chances to close out the match in four games, leading 24-22, before three consecutive errors gave Panola the lead. Josiane Santos, a talented back-row hitter, had a kill to give the Fillies the 26-24 win.
“I just feel like a lot of times this season we’ve waited around for teams to give us the game,” said Shirley, whose squad has gone the distance only three times. “I think it was good for Panola to push us that hard … and have our backs against the wall, especially in Game 5.
“I think that shows a lot of character and that’s some good insight for me, especially with some of the freshmen because you know they still get nervous out there in crunch time.”
TJC’s next match is at Trinity Valley at 6 p.m. Monday in Athens.