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.