Sports have returned to Lamar County amidst the spread of COVID-19, and two local volleyball teams faced off to help welcome high school sports back to the area. On Tuesday, the Paris Lady Wildcats hosted the Prairiland Lady Patriots in both teams’ regular-season opener.
The match remained tight throughout, but the Lady Patriots prevailed in the end in four sets by a final score of 24-26, 25-23, 25-23, and 25-17.
Prairiland (1-0) lost five seniors from last year’s team that reached the regional quarterfinals for the first time since 2004.
“We have a whole new team this year, and we’ve really had to rebuild and kind of find each other,” Prairiland senior middle blocker Reese Parris said. “We started out strong and sort of lost ourselves at first — we just aren’t completely used to playing with each other. Once things started clicking, we all remembered the hustle drills, we were encouraging each other, and we just kept pushing like every play was our last.”
The Lady Pats were dialed in from the opening serve as they managed to jump out to a big early lead. A big block from senior middle blocker T.J. Folse capped an 11-3 start to the first set for Prairiland, and Paris (0-1) called timeout.
The Lady ’Cats cut the deficit to 11-5 after a kill from junior middle blocker Presli Chapman and a service ace from junior setter Eva Vogt, but Folse hammered home back-to-back kills ahead of an emphatic swing for junior outside hitter Ali Sessums to extend the lead to 15-5. Paris turned it around and took off on a 12-2 run to tie the score at 17-all, which was capped off by a kill from junior setter Lilly Lewis and was also ignited by big plays from senior middle blocker Hannah Gibbons. A kill from both Parris and sophomore Kyndal Yaross, followed by an ace from sophomore Chloe Raley put the Lady Patriots ahead 20-17.
Prairiland held a 24-20 lead a few points later but, fueled by strong plays from junior Macey McAmis and her teammates, Paris rallied to stun the visitors with a 6-0 run to steal a 26-24 win in the opening set.
“As frustrating as it was to lose that set after coming out so strong, I just had to tell them, ‘Look. You have to forget about it and move on. You can change what happened, so yall need to turn it around and keep fighting because it’s a ball game,’” Lady Patriots head volleyball coach Emily Vanderburg said.
The second set was tight from the beginning, with neither team holding a lead greater than three points. Prairiland held a 24-21 lead in the set similar to the last one, and things seemed to be slipping away from the Lady Patriots again. Chapman put down an emphatic kill in front of the 10-foot line on a free ball, then a Prairiland error cut the home team’s deficit to 24-23. However, Paris’ momentum in the set was deflated after a serve sailed left of the boundary to end it 25-23 in favor of the road team.
Both teams were going hard on the court in the pivotal third set, which was nip-and-tuck as well. Prairiland held a slim 16-13 lead until Chapman clobbered the ball in back-to-back possessions to trim Prairiland’s lead to one point. The Lady Patriots upped the effort and movement to turn the tides of the match around, and the way they changed gears was evident to both coaches.
“I always stress the importance of hustling and getting after the ball. We do a lot of things in practice to transfer that over into the game,” Vanderburg said. “I feel like the first set — we did have the big lead — but we were more jittery instead of just going out there and playing. After that set, we just played. We went after the ball and I always tell the players that good things happen when they go after the ball. I think they surprised themselves with some of the balls they were able to get up into the play.”
“The first game didn’t start out the best, but once we were able to shut down their middles’ hitting, we built a lot of confidence and energy. We took over and had the momentum in our favor,” Lady ’Cats head volleyball coach Ashley Green said. “We were right there with them in the second and third games, but I felt like they just had the hustle and wanted it more. Our team is still so young and we are trying to work on a new defense and new setters this year. My expectations are high, but I know it will take time. I just want to see the girls continue to work and work on their defense.”
With the score at 21-18 in favor of Prairiland, both teams volleyed back and forth during a long point. All players on the hardwood displayed hustle and produced quality plays, but Sessums ended the long rally with a deceptive tip over the left side of the net. When the ball dropped down to the court, Prairiland led 22-18. The Lady Pats felt the pressure in closing the set, but even when Paris cut the deficit to one point on two occasions late in the set, Folse spiked the ball down between a pair of Paris defenders to end another victorious set for Prairiland.
Prairiland coasted through the majority of the decisive fourth set, holding as a large as a 20-11 lead and, even though Paris made it interesting late, Prairiland closed strong with a 5-1 run to seal the match.
The ongoing spread of COVID-19 has made organizing, playing, and practicing sports a tall task, but keeping the main focus at the forefront without worrying about outside distractions is a goal for the Lady Patriots.
“With all these changes, it is hard. When you sit and think about it, it can be really overwhelming,” Vanderburg said. “But, you have to focus on the things that you can control. The things we can control are our skills, what we put into our practices, and we just go out and take it one day at a time. We are focused on getting better every single day.”
The gymnasium’s occupancy at Paris High School was and will continue to be limited to about 50 percent of maximum occupancy while face masks and temperature checks are required for those attending. However, being able to get out and play the game she loves is more than good enough for one Prairiland player and her teammates.
“I’m grateful to just be here and play with everyone,” said Folse, who had a game-high 13 kills. “We don’t know if people are going to start shutting stuff down, so I’m just glad to be out here playing during my senior season.”
Along with her game-high 13 kills, Folse added 5 blocks, while Parris finished with 10 kills, 2 blocks, and 1 ace. Sessums and junior middle blocker Abi Farmer added 10 and 5 kills, respectively, while Sessums also contributed with 17 digs and 6 aces. Farmer also tallied a block. Underclassmen setters Hanna Cope registered 24 and 14 assists, respectively, while Raley registered 8 digs and 3 aces. Cope ended the match with 7 digs. Yaross did a little bit of everything as she compiled 5 kills, 14 digs, and 1 ace, while Lanna Riney helped anchor the defense with 15 digs.
McAmis played strong for the home team with 12 kills, 6 digs, 1 block, while Chapman added 9 kills. Gibbons had 4 kills and 6 blocks, while junior libero Bella Hill totaled 9 digs. Lewis collected 2 kills, 28 assists, and 10 digs, while sophomore Reece Reavis finished with 1 kill and 5 digs. Sophomore middle blocker Ava Tidwell recorded 2 kills and 1 dig, while Vogt ended the match with 3 kills, 7 digs, and 5 assists.
For Paris, getting back in the groove is the first step. Once the new faces skills sharpen further and the veteran players lead and help advance the team’s chemistry, Green feels confident in the direction her team is headed.
“If they can just work on the defense we are doing and the practice of it, then they are going to take off once they get comfortable with it. We know we will have a great team,” Green said. “Right now, we’re still trying to get the kinks out and make sure we are all coming together as one. Having them know their roles and to be confident in them will be key, but I realize I need to teach the younger players more so they can keep working to reach our program’s expectations.”
The Lady Patriots look to win again at 3 p.m. Friday at Farmersville, while the Lady ’Cats aim to bounce back at 3 p.m. Friday at home against Caddo Mills.