The Neches Tigers are the only defending state volleyball champions to return to the UIL State Tournament, being held at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland this week.
Coach Morgan Roberson's Tigers started this year's play in Garland, facing off against the Blum Lady Cats, who made it to the state title match in 2017 when they lost to Bronte.
But it was the Tigers who looked confident early and often, rolling to a 6-1 lead in Set 1 and never trailing in a three-set sweep (25-10, 25-13, 25-13) of Blum. Neches advances to the Class 1A state final match (set for Thursday at 3 p.m.) against the winner of the Round Top-Carmine/Water Valley semifinal.
After losing Set 1, the Lady Cats fell behind 10-4 in Set 2 before launching a 5-1 scoring run to close within two, 11-9. But Roberson took a quick time out and her team responded, with scoring runs of 5-0 and 9-3 to open up the lead.
They were never challenged after that.
"(Being back after last year) had my girls a lot more confident when they took the floor today," Roberson stated afterward. "Last year they were so nervous they (had a service error) to open the semifinals! We could tell they (Blum) were a bit nervous and we took advantage by opening up an early lead.
"Last year we went with the motto 'Rise Up.' This year's motto is "Rise Again.' The girls have worked hard to earn the right to play on Thursday."
Emma Rodriguez led Blum with seven kills and added seven digs; Kylie Sanders tallied 14 assists and two digs while Stormie Swinburne added 14 digs and one kill.
"Neches is pretty darn good," Blum coach Lauren McPherson joked after the game. "But our girls kept fighting hard each and every game. They fought to the end; Emma (Roodriguez) had a thumb issue but played through it and never complained.
"The three Rodriguez, Alexis Allen and Kylie Sanders) have set a high bar for this team. We played for the state title in 2017 and we came back to the State tournament again this year. The three seniors have been a great building block for the program and we appreciate all their efforts."