Plano East Tops HP in Playoff Thriller

COPPELL — After going back and forth with Plano East for five white-knuckle sets, Highland Park was eliminated from the volleyball playoffs on Thursday.

The Lady Scots rallied from two sets down, then fought off four match points in the final stanza, before the Lady Panthers emerged victorious, 25-22, 25-21, 23-25, 21-25, 18-16, in the Class 6A Region I area round.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how the team fought and never quit. They’ve shown that resilience all year,” said HP head coach Michael Dearman. “In the fifth set, they just made a few extra plays that we didn’t.”

It was the second consecutive exit in the second round for HP at the 6A level. The next round of UIL realignment in February could place the Lady Scots (31-12) back in Class 5A company going forward.

HP rallied after a slow start in the opening set with a five-point run off the serve of setter Harper Hall. An ace from libero Gigi Whann gave the Lady Scots a short-lived lead at 18-17.

Plano East asserted itself on offense and defense in the second set. Lefthanded libero Sophie Wilson’s serves and digs keyed an early spurt, as did the blocking of Ashby Daniel.

HP’s Alex Richter was scoring with big swings from multiple spots on the court, but Plano East freshman hitter Grace Pinegar had the final say to give the Lady Panthers (32-12) a 2-0 advantage.

The Lady Scots battled back, with Sadie Gruber setting the tone in the third set with a sliding kill. Later, consecutive kills by Richter and Brooklyn Bailey swung the momentum.

HP took control in the fourth set, with Gruber’s thundering kill out of the middle giving the Lady Scots a 13-8 advantage. Richter and Bailey each were targeted by plenty of Hall’s sets in the latter portion of the match.

Meanwhile, HP’s Bella Ocampo all but assured a fifth and deciding frame with a kill down the line following an extended rally at 23-21 in the fourth.

“We had to tweak some of our strategies defensively,” Dearman said. “In the fourth set, we definitely got on a roll and took control of the match.”

The final set was dominated by Plano East’s Lauryn Lambert, who had five kills down the stretch. Still, the Lady Scots stayed alive by winning critical points, including one on a Bailey block and another on a Richter kill that terminated a long rally.

It was the second five-set match between HP and Plano East this season, after the Lady Scots won the first meeting on Aug. 29. That started a 20-match winning streak that was snapped on Thursday.

The Lady Panthers, who are making their first playoff appearance in more than a decade, advance to the regional quarterfinals to face either Arlington Martin or Prosper next week.

HP will lose a few key seniors to graduation, including Hall, Gruber, and Kate Fenton. But the majority of the roster will return, such as juniors Richter and Ocampo, plus sophomores Bailey and Whann.

“We’re going to miss our seniors,” Dearman said. “But we have so much experience coming back. You can’t replace the experience of the playoffs.”

PHOTO: Chris McGathey

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