By TJ MAXWELL
One of the scariest scenarios for a head coach is seeing how their team performs after coming off one of their biggest wins of the season – especially when there are a ton of distractions.
That was the case for Copperas Cove head volleyball coach Cari Lowery when her squad faced Killeen for senior night on Tuesday after a season-defining win over state-ranked Midway on Friday.
“I’m glad that one is over with after the big win on Friday,” said Lowery. “This one was scary for me. I wasn’t nervous about the Midway game at all but this one made me a little nervous because it’s parents’ night, senior night and there was 900 things going on. Killeen was in a must-win situation to tie for fourth so now they have to knock Midway out.”
The Lady Dawgs quelled those nerves with a dominant win over the Lady Roos, allowing just 24 points by Killeen in the three-set sweep (25-8, 25-7, 25-9).
“I think they handled it well,” said Lowery. “I think they did great. They practiced well and I told them Saturday to enjoy that win over the weekend then Monday we get back to business and take care of what’s coming next. That win Friday doesn’t mean anything if we don’t do everything else we’re supposed to do.”
The Lady Dawgs had a much tougher time against the feisty Lady Roos in the first round. They gave up nearly twice as many points to Killeen in the first matchup.
A key to the improvement is continuity, especially on the defensive side. Coach Lowery had to do a little more tinkering than usual to figure out the most effective rotation. The team has had the same rotation since Lowery made some final adjustments after the first Killeen game.
“When we played Killeen the first time, that was a different rotation and that was the last big change I made,” she said. “I saw some weak spots where we had some holes. We’ve been playing that way now with this combination since after the last Killeen game. I feel like we’re getting better every time and that’s the goal.”
The most improvement has come on defense where they are gobbling up and returning fire on nearly everything hit at them, led by senior libero Bailey French.
“It really helps, Said French. “If I go across the court, I know who’s going to cover my back if they happen to hit off their pinky or something. It’s a trust thing. We know each other are going to do their jobs and pick up what they need to do.”
One of the biggest changes is the execution on receiving the serve, digging and passing properly in order to execute offensively. The Lady Dawgs were hitting a lot of free balls over the net earlier in the year, allowing their opponents to key off on them offensively.
Roles have reversed now.
“We know how important it is to have every aspect game playing their part,” said French. “Us as a defense, we really want to work hard to make sure we perform for our hitters – pass and dig so we can come back at the other team with our own attack.”
The wide-variety of attack options doesn’t hurt either.
The Lady Dawgs have six different hitters that can take over a set or match at any time. A new edition to the Lady Dawgs group of hitters known as the “Boom Squad” is senior Katy Ranes.
Ranes was primarily a setter last year but has transitioned to a bigger hitter role with the emergence of junior setter Kiarrah Carlisle and Ranes feels that change was a positive one for herself and the team.
“I think that decision was a better decision for the team because Kiarrah is a great setter and she does a lot for our team,” she said. “It also made me front row and I think hitting-wise, I’ve improved a lot this season. I think that made us better in the long run.”
The six hitters have combined for 1,281 kills and a 39.67 kill percentage.
The Lady Dawgs took advantage of some Killeen errors to build a 14-3 lead in the first set Tuesday. A pair of blocks and a kill by junior Chyanne Chapman, paired with an ace by Carlisle helped fuel the run.
Both teams exchanged some miscues to push the score to 22-7 in favor of the Lady Dawgs. A kill by Cove junior Brianna Acker and one by Killeen senior Dai’Brianna Nash were the only earned points in the run.
A combo block by seniors Megan Diaz and Ranes gave the Lady Dawgs set point and a dump by Diaz clinched the set.
The Lady Dawgs quickly got going offensively in the second set with another huge run, this one 19-3. They had 11 kills during the run, paced by three each from the two leading hitters in seniors Jennifer Eubanks and Raeven Dickerson.
A back row attack violation briefly gave the Lady Roos a reprieve but blocks by Ranes and Acker and kills by Ranes and Eubanks closed out the set 25-7 for a 2-0 lead in the match.
The Lady Dawgs again quickly pounced on Killeen to begin the final set with a 10-2 run, punctuated by a pair of back-row kills by Eubanks.
An attack by Nash and a block by senior Madison Sapp kept the Lady Roos in the set at 12-5 but a 13-4 run by the Lady Dawgs closed out the match.
Three-consecutive kills by Eubanks off of Ranes assists allowed the Lady Dawgs to push their lead to 17-7 and kills by Dickerson and Acker, complimented by another Carlisle ace put Killeen away 25-9.
“Coming off the Midway game, we realized we needed to win our next three to stay district champs,” said Ranes. “That’s a big thing. We need to do our best over these games and we did tonight.”
It was a bittersweet night for the Lady Dawgs as the seven seniors played at home for the final time.
“It’s exciting but also a little sad,” said French. “I’ve left a lot on this court and I’ve worked hard for four years or more. There are a lot of emotions but I’m ready to continue playing the rest of district and then the playoffs.”
Ranes echoed those sentiments.
“It’s really sad but there is nothing to cry about because I’ve given everything on this court,” she said. “I’ve been on varsity since I was a sophomore and I just gave it all so I have no regrets.”
Pria Johnson, also a senior, has been injured all season but was recognized after the game along with her seven senior teammates.
“It’s special,” said Lowery about the senior night festivities. “I love these kids. They are such good kids and their parents are great. They’re here for everything and very supportive. The program wouldn’t be where it is without the kids buying in, the parents buying in and that consistent support over the years when there wasn’t anything to support.”
The Lady Dawgs need to notch wins over Harker Heights tonight and Belton on Tuesday to secure, at least, a share of the 12-6A crown – their third district title in four years.
“Just because we beat Midway doesn’t mean the season’s over,” said French. “We still have to fight to be first in district because something could happen and everything we worked for would be done and over with. We just have to prove that Friday wasn’t just a spoof. We know how to play, we’re good and we work hard.
“We have to make sure we come out strong,” said French. “We can’t start slow. Today, we were a little slow and we got sucked into their game. It’s really easy to do that, but we have to know how to play our game the whole time.”
Lowery still sees their best play ahead.
“I still think we have room for growth and that’s great at this point,” she said. “I still think we have not yet played a game where everybody has had a great game. They keep telling me they are saving that so I keep saying, ‘it’s about time to yank it out.’”