The goal of Friendswood High School volleyball coach Sarah Paulk and her Mustangs was to avenge a loss in last year's Class 3A, Region III final and get to the UIL State Tournament.
After beating Rouse (ranked #5 in the state) and Manvel (Paulk's former team as a coach) last weekend, the 'Stangs made it to the Curtis Culwell Center this week.
They took on the #1 team in Class 5A, the Lovejoy Leopards of Ryan Mitchell.
And as much offense, defense and passing the Mustangs could muster, the still fell short in the 5A semifinals on Friday afternoon, falling to Lovejoy in four sets (25-15, 19-25, 25-18, 25-22).
Friendswood's excellent season ends at 34-18 while Lovejoy (47-5) gets set to take on Randall, which swept Alamo Heights, in the 5A state title match, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday.
"When I got to Friendswood four years ago, they had missed the playoffs for two straight years," Paulk explained afterward. "I came in and immediately knew the talent was there. We worked hard and our current seniors (Tori Weatherley, Makensy Manbeck, Brooke Langston, Reagan Reilly and Maddie Ritchey) bought into what we taught them.
"This group accomplished what we wanted. We put Friendswood back on the map (in volleyball); we were in the regional finals last year; and, we made it to state this year. Next year's team will know what it's like to get here and we expect to be back."
The two seniors in particular - Weatherley and Manbeck - left their indelible mark on the program. They grew up together, playing volleyball together since the age of 13, and were so incredibly in synch on the floor to the delight of Friendswood volleyball fans.
"We're more than sisters," Weatherly said. "We're twins. We always had that special connection. There were times I'd ask her what (play or system) she'd want to run and she'd say, 'Whatever you want! It doesn't matter.'
"I'm going to miss my sister next year. But the good news is, we're both moving on to the next step and realizing our dreams of playing college volleyball."
Junior Ashlyn Svoboda said the girls remaining know their objective.
"We're going to be back here next year," she declared. "We know what this is like and we're hungry to get back and finish the job."
Weatherley dished out 42 assists in her last match as a Mustang; she had eight digs as well. Manbeck tied with Svoboda with 14 kills apiece; Manbeck made one block, dug out four balls and had an ace. Svoboda added 20 digs, four assists and one ace.
Alessandra Meoni, who dominated the Region III tournament, slammed 13 kills and made 10 digs plus three total blocks. Sarah Sitton was a force in the middle, making three total blocks and punching through eight kills.
Lovejoy was led by TCU-commit Cecily Bramschreiber, who tallied a match-high 18 kill to go with 14 digs. Averi Carlson dished out 43 assists and made eight digs while teammate Callie Kemohah tallied 29 digs, three assists and two kills.
Friendswood started the match like a house on fire, taking a 5-1 lead on the strength of an ace by Kate Beuche (one ace and 25 digs) and two kills by Manbeck. But Lovejoy answered and slowly climbed back into the match, steadying the ship and keeping the deficit within 2-3 points.
Down 9-6, Mitchell's Leopards launched on a 10- scoring run due mostly to big blocks and kills. They'd settle into a 19-11 lead and matched Friendswood point-for-point to take the first set 25-15.
Paulk then talked to her team, telling them to settle down and do what they do best.
And boy, did they, in Set 2.
Time after time the Mustangs frustrated Lovejoy hitters with either point-scoring blocks or touch-blocks to keep rallies alive. Meoni found her swing from the right side and the Mustangs took a 15-15 tie and made it 21-16 with a 5-1 spurt. Eventually Meonio and Manbeck combined on a block to end the set at 25-10 and tie the match at one set apiece.
Paulk's crew did what they needed to do in Sets 3 and 4 - run out to early leads and put the Leopards on their heels. Unfortunately, Lovejoy (making its ninth appearance at state, with six titles in hand) kept finding a way through good hitting and blocking to answer.
In Set 3 the Leopards tailed 6-2 on an ace by Cierra Pesak (seven kills, one dig and one ace). But they blasted through with scoring runs of 6-2, 8-3, 10-5 and eventually an overall run of 19-8 to take a 21-14 edge. They finished out the set, 25-18.
The 'Stangs stayed close to the Leopards in Set 4 until a 3-0 run gave Lovejoy a 21-18 lead. The did close the gap to 23-22 but back-to-back kills by Ellie Jonke (nine kills and five digs) closed out the match.
What a year 2018 was for Houston- area volleyball!
Kingwood Park went all the way and completed the mission, claiming the Class 5A State Championship. The Panthers bring solid pieces back for a potential run at a repeat. Ridge Point was also there playing for a state title but fell short to North Texas power Flower Mound. There are also the traditional powers in Houston, such as The Woodlands and Seven Lakes, who will try and make noise again in 2019.
So, who are the contenders?
Kingwood Park Panthers
(Won Class 5A State Championship)
READY TO DEFEND TITLE: Kingwood Park stood tall as the lone state champion from Houston in 2018. The Panthers made their first-ever trip to the UIL State Volleyball Tournament and shocked the land by knocking off Lucas Lovejoy in a sweep. Now, the target is firmly on the back of Kingwood Park heading into 2019. The Panthers do return solid pieces, including senior Libby Overmyer, who was named the 5A State Championship Game MVP. Overmyer (Colgate-commit) finished with a team-leading 391 kills and a second-best 290 digs. Also returning is Erika and Alia Williams. Erika finished with 211 kills and a team-leading 124 blocks at the net. Alia registered 262 kills last season. A spot the Panthers will have to figure out is at setter after losing Andie Unwin (743 assists) and Julia Hadley (706 assists) to graduation. Kelly Miser (102-22) enters her fourth season leading the Panthers and will try to get the program back to its third-straight regional final and potentially a run for back-toback state championships.
Ridge Point Panthers
(Reached Class 6A State Championship Game)
JETER, RUTHERFORD, MCCARDELL LEAD TALENTED GROUP INTO 2019: Ridge Point was on the cusp of bringing home the hardware in 2018. A loss in the Class 6A Championship game to Flower Mound prevented that, but fueled a team full of juniors to be ready for 2019. Gone is superstar Skylar Fields, who will star this fall at the University of Texas. Coach Lori McLaughlin has also moved on, taking the Cedar Park job. Lauren Bailey will take the coaching reigns and the cupboard is loaded. Back is a solid senior crew led by Claire Jeter (Texas A&M-commit). Jeter, a selection to the State All-Tournament team last season, led Ridge Point with 490 kills and 167 blocks. Also back is Reagan Rutherford (Kentucky-commit), who had 832 assists, 477 digs, 382 kills and 105 blocks. Ridge Point also brings back leading setter Kendall Sekula (979 assists) and defensive standout Nia McCardell (906 digs). With all this talent back on the roster, Ridge Point should be considered a heavy favorite in the city again. The Panthers will have to fight their way through a tough Region III-6A bracket, with the potential of running into Seven Lakes, Pearland Dawson or George Ranch in the postseason. The Panthers should be ready with the experience back.
The Woodlands Highlanders
(Reached 6A Regional Semifinals)
MABERRY TO LEAD HIGH-OCTANE OFFENSE: When talking about contenders in Houston, The Woodlands must be in the conversation. The Highlanders reached the Regional Semifinals for a seventh-straight time last season before falling to Plano West. Falling short of reaching the Regional Finals snapped a five-year streak of playing in that round for The Woodlands. Heading into this season – chasing the program's fourth overall state championship and first since 2015 – The Woodlands has some top talent back. Dylan Maberry (LSU-commit) leads the offensive group after racking up an impressive 765 kills last season and was named the District 15-6A Offensive Player of the Year. Maberry also registered 489 digs, 62 aces and 59 blocks. Also returning is first-team, all-district selections Clara Brower (Georgia-commit) and Amanda Ifeanyi (UT-San Antonio-commit). Brower had 1,546 assists last season, while Ifeanyi had 359 kills and 110 blocks. Other key returners for The Woodlands include second-team, all-district selection Natasha Zorbas (134 kills and 100 blocks) and Allie Griffith (Air Force-commit), who earned an honorable mention, all-district nod after racking up 189 digs in 79 sets. Terri Wade (353-137) enters her fifth season at The Woodlands and 12th overall as a head coach.