Tiiiiiimber: Lovejoy chops down Red Oak en route to regional tournament
RICHARDSON - The Lovejoy volleyball team appears to be having fun again.
A week after a stiff playoff opener Mount Pleasant in which Lovejoy's starters were benched prior to the last game, the Lady Leopards look much sharper. The team plowed over Mansfield Legacy on Friday (25-13, 25-17, 25-18) and kept the sweep parade rolling Monday night in the regional quarterfinals at Richardson Berkner with a win over Red Oak (25-17, 25-13, 25-21) to advance to the Class 4A Region II Tournament.
"We've been getting back to basics," said Ryan Mitchell, Lovejoy head coach. "We have focused on celebrating each match that we win; putting up goal sheets and going out for ice cream after the match."
Lovejoy's traditional post-playoff win stop has been Dairy Queen.
"We'll see if there is one of those around here," Mitchell said after the match, "but we'll definitely be going somewhere."
Regardless of where the Lady Leopards stopped for their dairy treat of choice, the message of enjoying each step during their first season in Class 4A seems to have sunk in for the four-time reigning Class 3A State Champions.
"You never know when you're last match is going to be," said Ebony Nwanebu, Lovejoy senior, "so to get to regionals is an amazing feeling."
Red Oak gave Lovejoy a run, particularly in the first set.
The Lady Hawks held a one- to two-point lead into the teens with a strong block against Nwanebu and a plethora of tips.
"I'd say that's probably one thing we need to work on," Nwanebu said. "That off-ball defense, so we make sure those tips don't continue to fall."
The tips only fell for the first half of the first set as Lovejoy took the lead for good at 14-13 on a kill by Nwanebu and proceeded to end on a 13-4 run that included kills by Nwanebu, senior Mallorie Puckett and junior Katelyn McKenzie. The finish to said run came at 25-17 on a kill by Nwanebu.
More of the same was in store for the second set as the Red Oak block subsided and Lovejoy attacked an overwhelmed back row.
"I thought our defense was good; we were working well off the block and looked good in transition," Mitchell said. "When you see that level of play, especially toward the end of the first set and throughout the second, that's the level we need to be at to be the best in the state. And you saw the girls are capable of that."
The Lady Leopards won the first four points of the second set with the last one coming on an ace by McKenzie.
"We executed our serve game plan very well," Mitchell said. "We had them off balance and out of system quite a bit because of that."
Red Oak wouldn't get closer than three points after Lovejoy's opening surge as senior Shannon Connell, who had 43 assists, set a plethora of terminations for Nwanebu and senior Lucy Tweedie. That duo combined for 33 kills and the looks were frequently different with Nwanebu finishing the high sets on the outside and Tweedie flooring short sets in the middle.
"I think that can really tire the middles for your opponent," Tweedie said, "because they have so many things they have to look at."
"Usually when an opponent game plans for us they will first look to shut down Ebony," Mitchell said. "But when you do that, we have other hitters that can hurt you on the opposite pin or in the middle."
Nwanebu, Puckett and Tweedie all put up kills before and during an 8-0 surge that gave Lovejoy a 24-12 lead. Two of those points in the 20s came off aces by senior Bailey Martin who, along with senior Brooke Ray, controlled the back row for the Lady Leopards. A service error by Red Oak cinched the set for Lovejoy, 25-13.
The Lady Hawks didn't give up though, running far more point-for-point sequences with Lovejoy in Game 3 than the prior two sets.
"We might have gotten a little complacent with our shot placement," Mitchell said, "but you also have to credit Red Oak in that last game for coming out with a lot of energy."
Lovejoy still kept a slim lead throughout Game 3, extending that advantage to 24-21 off a kill by Nwanebu and wrapping up the sweep at 25-21 with a termination from Puckett. The victory puts the Lady Leopards into a regional tournament for the sixth time in their six varsity seasons. This will be the first at Class 4A as the team returns to Berkner at 7 p.m. Friday against Frisco Heritage or Frisco Centennial.
The Region II Finals are 2 p.m. Saturday at Berkner with the winner advancing to next week's Class 4A State Tournament at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.
"Right now we just need to be sure we're ready for regionals," Tweedie said, "and then give it our all once we're there."