STEPHENVILLE – The legacy of its 2021 senior class and fighting spirit shone bright even in defeat on Saturday for Tarleton volleyball.
The Texans honored eight seniors – Kayla Brannon, Natalya Chatham, Amari Franklin, Lauren Kersey, Carmen Kinsey, Lorin McNeil, Amber Strange and Hali’a Swartman-Hogan – prior to its home finale vs. Sam Houston.
Emotions were raw as head coach Mary Schindler and a capacity Wisdom Gym crowd recognized each player one-by-one. The senior class engineered the winningest season in school history as freshmen in 2018, led Tarleton through the COVID-19 year and to Division I this spring and produced multiple players whose names are etched across the program record books and 2021 WAC statistical leaderboard.
Dry eyes were scarce in the Texan lineup line ahead of first serve. But the collective attention quickly shifted to a matchup with big-time Western Athletic Conference implications. The Bearkats lead the WAC Southwest Division. A win over Sam Houston would have pulled Tarleton into a four-way tie for a share of first place among its divisional peers.
Ultimately, Tarleton fought the conference-leading Bearkats the whole way, building a 2-1 match lead before dropping sets four and five to suffer a five-seat heartbreaker of a loss. Set scores for the match were 25-20, 19-25, 25-17, 21-25 and 9-15.
The Bearkats (16-8, 9-3) eased past Tarleton in four sets on Sept. 30 in Huntsville to begin conference play. But on a special afternoon in the Cowboy Capital, the Texans quickly asserted that things would be different the second time around.
Riding the momentum of a thrilling five-set victory over Stephen F. Austin on Thursday, the Texans (14-13, 5-5) laced home 14 kills behind a .500 hitting percentage to cruise to a 1-0 match lead. Sam Houston led 4-1, but Tarleton pulled even at 7-7 and used an 11-6 extended scoring run to assume control of the frame at 18-13. The Bearkats later got within a point of Tarleton at 18-17. The Texans responded by scoring on the ensuing three plays and closed the show with three straight points.
Feeding the inspired start was Kersey, who saved her best home match in Purple and White for her final outing in Wisdom Gym. The reigning WAC Offensive Player of the Week tied her career-high in kills with a match-leading 24 on a .488 hitting clip. Six of Kersey’s scoring spikes came in the opening frame. The performance was the apex of an impressive 48 hours for the Norman, Oklahoma native. Kersey led all players with 20 kills to fuel Tarleton’s come-from-behind win over the Ladyjacks. With two games remaining in an illustrious career, Kersey now ranks fifth in school history in career kills (1,298).
Tarleton then possessed a prime opportunity to tighten its grip on the match in set two. The Texans took advantage of a Bearkat service error, one of a match-high seven blocks from McNeil and a service ace via Brannon’s right hand to transform a two-point deficit into a 10-9 lead. Sam Houston, though, responded with a 13-4 run on its way to evening the affair at one set apiece.
Brannon led all players in service aces with three while dishing out a team-high 28 assists. Fellow setter Melina Maldonado joined the outgoing senior in double figures with 18 dimes.
Elise Smith, who transferred to Tarleton from Sam Houston earlier this year, helped tighten Tarleton’s block in set three and regain the initiative. The Louisianan stymied a 7-4 Sam Houston lead with consecutive kills from the middle block to ignite Tarleton’s eventual set victory.
Smith, one of the most efficient hitters in the WAC, paired eight kills with four blocks in her second match opposite her former team.
Kinsey, Strange and Swartman-Hogan took over from there offensively. Kinsey, a fellow Norman native, delivered two straight kills from the left side to split apart a 13-13 deadlock and give Tarleton its first multi-point lead of the period. Strange then joined the party with a kill of her own while rotating between all six positions to make the score 18-14. A block assist from Swartman-Hogan on the following play upped the Texans’ edge to five and effectively locked up set victory. Strange and Kersey went back-to-back on kills to increase Tarleton’s lead to 23-16 before consecutive Sam Houston errors sewed up the frame.
Kinsey finished with 11 kills and Strange had nine. Both players also chipped in two blocks while Swartman-Hogan had three.
Tarleton possessed a prime opportunity to earn a signature victory and its third straight in the fourth frame. The Texans paired up a kill from Kersey with a Strange service ace to knot the set at 11-11 and stayed within a point of the Bearkats four times to the tune of a 15-14 Sam Houston edge. Sam Houston then scored on five of the next six plays to push its advantage to 20-15. Tarleton clawed within two points of its Chordata counterpart at 23-21 but the Bearkats used a kill and a subsequent Texan attack error to send the match the distance.
A long rally that went in favor of the visitors swung the pendulum in favor of Sam Houston in the fifth and decisive set. The teams alternated points to the tune of a 4-4 tie to begin the period. An extended volley that traversed both ends of the court multiple times two plays later ended in a kill for Sam Houston and prompted Tarleton to burn a timeout. Sam Houston scored three-of-four points out of the break to lead 9-5 and wrestle control of the “first-to-15” frame. Tarleton came within two points of Sam Hoston twice at 10-8 and 11-9 but the Bearkats ultimately ended the afternoon with four straight points.
Tarleton had the upper-hand on Sam Houston in digs (75-71) and blocks (12-8) despite the defeat. Fourth-year player Ana Costas, who will use the NCAA eligibility waiver and return to Tarleton in 2022, tallied a team-leading 22 digs. Strange added 14 of her own and Isabel Gonzaba snuffed out 10 off the bench.
The Texans now turn their attention to their final two games of the year. Tarleton draws UTRGV on Thursday in Edinburg and wraps up the 2021 campaign at Lamar on Nov. 13. A win in one of its final two games guarantees a winning record for Tarleton. Should they do so, the Texans will become the first team in Tarleton’s WAC and Division I era to post consecutive winning seasons. The feat would also mark the 13th straight winning season under Schindler and 14th overall.