By DAVID MAY
BANGS – As they did against tough district foes Kennedale and Springtown, Mineral Wells showed heart and fight in its Class 3A area volleyball playoff game Friday night against Liberty Hill.
Unfortunately for the Lady Rams, the end result was the same.
The 23rd-ranked and District 8-3A champion Lady Panthers, who had a bye coming into the contest, ended the Lady Rams’ historic season with a three game sweep, 25-15, 25-23 and 25-19.
It lowered the curtain on a season in which Mineral Wells made the playoffs for just the second time in school history and won its first playoff match (over Iowa Park) to reach this stage of the playoffs. It also ended the high school volleyball careers of 11 Lady Rams seniors, while showing the younger players the heightened level of play deeper in playoff rounds.
Head coach Taylor Eggleston said playing in a tough district, the experience of winning a first-round playoff game and battling a quality opponent like Liberty Hill will help her program take those next steps moving forward.
“When you are in the playoffs you are playing really good teams, if not great teams,” Eggleston said. “You have to come out ready to go every single time because nobody is bad. They are all good and ready to go.”
Though a fairly young team with just three seniors and missing two players, the Lady Panthers played soundly and aggressively in all phases, and Eggleston gave them credit.
“I think they played a really fast game,” she said. “They didn’t make a lot of mistakes. That really helped (them) out as far as hitting errors and passing errors and serving errors. They just played a pretty fundamentally sound volleyball game across the board. They were a good team.”
Liberty Hill dispatched the Lady Rams with relative ease in the first game, jumping out to a 12-4 lead as the Lady Rams seemed unsettled early with several missed hits, return errors and net infractions. Mineral Wells recovered somewhat to pull to within six at 15-9 but more mistakes on returns and at the net allowed Liberty Hill to take a 25-15 win.
The second game was a close and hard-fought battle between the squads. Two early kills by Shay Douglas tied the game at six and an Erin Burgeson ace gave Mineral Wells a 7-6 lead. However, Liberty Hill reeled off seven unanswered points. Up 13-7 the Lady Panthers looked as if they would run off with game two.
But the Lady Rams responded, outscoring the Lady Panthers 10-2. A Douglas block at the net pulled the Lady Rams to within 14-9, and an ace by Cassidee McCluskey made it 15-11 Liberty Hill.
That was followed by consecutive Lady Rams points on a Taylor Parkhill tap, a Sidney Shelstead kill and a block by Niya Benavides. Liberty Hill hit a ball out and the Lady Rams found themselves tied at 15.
A Shelstead tap and then a block at the net put the Lady Rams up 17-15, which brought a large contingent of Mineral Wells fans to their feet with cheers and support.
The Lady Panthers came back to tie it at 17. MWHS libero Bethany Allen made a tremendous save, racing to the back corner to keep in play a ball that went over her head. That save turned into a point for Mineral Wells to pull them to within 21-19. Liberty Hill had five straight serving and hitting errors that put Mineral Wells back in the lead at 23-22.
But a mishit by Mineral Wells followed a Liberty Hill corner shot and a ball that hit right on the line – one the judge started to call out then changed his mind – gave the Lady Panthers the game two win.
In game three, Liberty Hill staked itself to an early lead and maintained it until about the midway point when Mineral Wells once again rallied to make it close. A Parkhill kill, a block by Shelstead and another block by her and her sister, Kennedy Shelstead, made it 11-8 Liberty Hill. Another McCluskey ace pulled the Lady Rams to within four at 15-11 and a dink over the net by Douglas had the Lady Rams down just 16-14.
But Liberty Hill closed out the match with an 11-3 run aided by three kills and three return errors by the Lady Rams.
“I think they (Liberty Hill) have probably been in this position before and for us this was our first time,” Eggleston said of Liberty Hill. “Across the board I did not have a single player that had been to this point in volleyball ever.
“It is definitely a learning experience.”
Eggleston said she told her players to hold their heads up and be proud of their season and what they accomplished.
“What we have done is something that’s never been done before and this sets such a high level for volleyball in Mineral Wells and also for the kids and the community,” she said. “Just the success we have had in volleyball it will bring more people out and more respect to what is deserved.”
Next year will be a rebuilding year for Eggleston’s program. While replacing the 11 departing seniors will not be easy, the coach believes she has players ready and eager to meet the challenge.
“I have one sophomore and four juniors returning. Our JV and freshmen teams are stacked with good players so they will step up and fill those roles,” she said. “The program is growing, which is a good thing. There will be big shoes to be filled, but they can be filled. There is the opportunity to fill those spots.”