A SECOND HELPING

O’Connor returns to State Tournament

By Pat Turner

Reaching the Class 6A State Volleyball Tournament a year ago was a special accomplishment for O’Connor’s Panthers.

Now, the Panthers are experiencing the thrill of returning to the big event after claiming a 3-2 win over District 28-6A foe Clark in the finals of the Region IV Tournament Saturday afternoon at Alamo Convocation Center.

O’Connor (41-11) plays Lewisville Flour Mound (40-7) in Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinals at Garland’s Culwell Center. The winner faces Fort Bend Ridge Point or Plano West in the championship Saturday.

Staging a repeat took some doing. Forced to replace several players from last year’s success, the Panthers went through growing pains during the regular season. After finishing 28-6A in a second-place tie with Brandeis and going into the post-season as the third seed following a coinflip, the Panthers caught fire.

They began with a 3-0 sweep of Reagan and Clemens and followed that with a 3-1 victory over Brandeis for a spot in the Region IV Tournament.

O’Connor stumbled out of the gates in the semifinals match with McAllen Memorial with a loss in the first set. However, the Panthers rebounded quickly and rolled to 3-1 win for a championship match with Clark.

“We’ve come such a long way,” O’Connor coach Yami Garcia said. “We learned a lot of lessons along the way. They have learned a lot about themselves. They rose to the occasion. I am so proud of these kids and O’Connor.”

The match with Clark was a huge challenge. The Cougars swept the Panthers in district play and won two meetings in tournament action.

This time, the Panthers made amends, thanks to renewed confidence from the previous playoff matches.

From the very first playoff game they had a different demeanor,” Garcia said. “They had a fire in them that we hadn’t seen.”

Much of the spark came from realizing one loss would mean the end of the season.

“We definitely had a fire,” senior libero Peyton Hummel said. “We wanted to win more than anything. Just the pressure of knowing this can be your last game, especially for us seniors, it’s the best motivation.

“Each win meant so much for us. Each game felt like it could be the last. We were reminded that every single time. We wanted to get back to this position more than anything else.”

Clark (47-4) was on a roll as well. The Cougars swept through 28-6A without a loss and began the playoffs with 3-0 wins over Madison and New Braunfels before squeezing out a 3-2 victory over New Braunfels Canyon. In the Region IV semis, the Cougars took Laredo United in three.

O’Connor came out on fire in the first set jumping to a 16-10 lead on steady hits from Kali Nelson, Lexi Davila and Emmy Ogogor.

The Panthers, who were never behind in the set, foiled Clark’s attempts at rallies with stops from Hummel, Marina De La Rosa, Bryshanna Brown and Sunnie Ozment.

Clark, however, turned the tables in the next two sets in similar fashion. With slams coming from Kara McGhee, Elise McGhee, Shadee Briggs and Grace Gibson, the Cougars powered their way to 25-19, 25-20 wins without a deficit.

Facing elimination, O’Connor found its groove in game four.

The teams were locked in a 12-12 tie, but consecutive kills by Ogogor and an ace from Terez Chavez pushed the Panthers to the 15-12 lead.

Clark was unable to crack the deficit, but the Cougars made it difficult for the Panthers. Two hits by Kara McGhee and an O’Connor error closed the gap to 21-20.

The Panthers finished on a high note as kills from Ogogor, Davila and Ozment led to a 25-22 win and the chance to play a fifth set.

Clark had the early advantage with powerful hits from Kara McGhee and Micayla Reiland pushing the Cougars to an 8-5 lead.

O’Connor kept battling back, but Clark had answers to the rally. Kara McGhee slipped a return past the Panthers and an error followed, along with a kill from Elise McGhee for 13-11 lead.

Just when it seemed the Cougars were about to wrap up the match, Ogogor recharged the Panthers with two kills to tie things up a 13-13.

Both teams went back-and-forth with more big defensive stops from Clark’s Madison Cuellar and Ashley Hu and O’Connor’s Hummel, Brown and De La Rosa.

Finally, Ogogor, who recorded 16 kills, put the Panthers in set match with a kill. Once again, another volley battle took place. However, Ogogor and Nelson teamed for a block for a 15-13 O’Connor win and the beginning of a celebration.

“We just decided to get together as a team, play like every ball is the last ball and just fight for it,” Ogogor said. “I trust everybody on this team. Everyone on the court had my back.”

Now, it’s on to the state tournament. Because it is the second trip, the Panthers, who lost to a 3-1 match to Katy Seven Lakes in the opening round, feel better prepared.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be going back,” Hummel said. “We have experience. We were definitely nervous going the first time. We have that confidence. We’re really excited.”

For images from the games you can log onto https://echosportszone.pixieset.com/

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