Tarleton stuns SFA in comeback five-set victory to earn biggest win of the fall

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STEPHENVILLE – Down 19-14 in set two vs. Stephen F. Austin on Thursday inside Wisdom Gym, Tarleton volleyball faced a choice. 

Fold, or fight back. 

The Texans dropped the first set 25-19 in the Western Athletic Conference affair and had yet to lead in the second frame. Tarleton was swept twice by the Ladyjacks, who were picked to win the WAC Southwest Division in August, earlier this year – once in January during the spring 2021 season and five weeks prior to Thursday’s tilt on Oct. 1.  

Ultimately, Tarleton chose the latter option, closing the second set on an 11-3 run and later erasing a 2-1 SFA match lead to stun the Ladyjacks 3-2 in five-set thriller.  

After dropping set three 25-18, Tarleton broke a 14-14 gridlock in set four with a 10-1 scoring surge to claim the fourth frame 25-20 and turned the match on its ear. With the momentum fully in favor of the team in Purple and White, it was all Texans in set five. Tarleton built a 3-1 lead, then scored on six-of-seven plays to transform a 6-6 tie into a 12-7 advantage. The Texans closed the books with three straight points to claim the set and the match 15-8. 

The victory was easily the biggest of the fall for Tarleton (14-12, 4-3 WAC), which has now won four of its last five contests and six-of-eight overall. SFA (16-7, 7-4) owns the best win percentage and is the highest-ranked team in the WAC Tarleton has defeated thus far. It marked the first time Tarleton has triumphed over the Ladyjacks on the volleyball court.  

Tarleton’s late-season improvements were apparent throughout the evening. After being held to 33 kills while allowing the Ladyjacks to hit .356 in their October defeat, the Texans spread 58 kills between seven players and limited SFA to .240 hitting percentage. Tarleton also held the edge in digs (70-66) and blocks (14-10). 

Lauren Kersey led all players in kills (20) and hitting percentage (.439). The effort was the second 20-kill performance of the fall for the senior, who now ranks fifth in school history in career kills (1,274).  

Kersey was the ignition behind Tarleton’s mid-match rally. She laced home 11 of her kills in the contest’s first two sets – six of which came in the second period. Her fourth kill of the frame got Tarleton within a point of SFA at 20-19 after consecutive service aces by Ana Costas made the score 19-17. Tarleton then took advantage of two straight SFA errors to take their first lead of the set at 23-22. Kersey then landed back-to-back kills adjacent to the right pin to even things at one set apiece. 

After a third set which shall not be spoken of, two other outside hitters teamed up with Kersey to inspire Tarleton’s decisive comeback – fellow seniors Amber Strange (11 kills, 5 digs) and Hali’a Swartman-Hogan (9 kills, 3 blocks).  

The two teams played to a tie eight times in the middle portions of set four to the tune of a 19-19 deadlock. Swartman-Hogan then tallied two straight kills to give Tarleton the lead for good at 21-20. The Texans closed the books with six consecutive points in the frame. 

Strange and Swartman-Hogan stepped up in the biggest moments in the fifth-and-final frame. Swartman-Hogan, who transferred to Tarleton from Oklahoma in 2020, notched her eighth kill to stake Tarleton to its 3-1 lead. She then stymied SFA’s last-ditch bid to preserve victory with another kill to trim a brief SFA advantage to 6-5 and later found the floor on a block assist to increase Tarleton’s lead to 10-7 and catapult Tarleton along its run. Strange then put the hammer down with a kill from the left side and a block assist on the match’s final two plays. 

Equally important in the win was Tarleton’s serve and receive. Three players tallied double-digit digs. Libero Costas led Tarleton with 17 while Kayla Brannon and Emma Halcomb had 11 apiece. Brannon also dished out a team-high 28 assists to earn her 12th double-double of her senior year. Setters Amari Franklin and Melina Maldonado each added 11 assists of their own. 

Fueling Tarleton’s defensive effort was one of the nation’s best middle blockers, Lorin McNeil. The senior stuffed a career-high 10 attacks at the net. McNeil continues to lead the WAC in total blocks, blocks per set and block attacks with her performance. Entering Thursday, she ranked fourth in the country in total blocks. Not to be outdone was Carmen Kinsey, who delivered an eight-kill, five-block effort off the bench to anchor the left side of Tarleton’s front row. 

Tarleton now needs a victory in one of its three remaining games this fall to finish with an overall record above .500. Should the Texans do so, it will mark the program’s 13th consecutive winning season under Schindler and 14th overall. Tarleton volleyball would also be the first team in the Texans Division I era to notch two winning seasons. 

The Texans draw Southwest Division-leading Sam Houston (15-8, 6-2) on Saturday at 1 p.m. in its home finale, then head to UTRGV and Lamar on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 to conclude the campaign. Tarleton will honor eight seniors prior to first serve on Saturday vs. the Bearkats.  

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