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Volleyball: Lambert falls to Buford in state finals heartbreaker
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Lambert volleyball huddles after falling to Buford in the Class 7A state finals Saturday at LakePoint Sporting Community. (Photo by Nicholas Sullivan)

Lambert volleyball thought it had won the program's first-ever state title, with members of its bench rushing the floor after a line judge called a hit by Buford out.

However, the head official overruled the call, claiming the Longhorns had tipped the ball at the net.

Given a second life, the Wolves took advantage in the Class 7A finals Saturday at LakePoint Sporting Community. Buford staved off another championship point to even the match at 14-all and never trailed again.

Lambert fought off three championship points itself — at 15-14, 16-15 and 17-16 – but two straight points by the top-ranked team in the state's highest classification ended the thrilling five-set match (22-25, 25-18, 25-15, 23-25, 19-17) in heartbreaking fashion for the Longhorns.

“We fought every point; they fought every point,” Lambert head coach Missey Hall said. “It’s what you want a championship match to look like — other than us losing.”

Being down 19-17 to end the match was the first time the Longhorns trailed by multiple points in the fifth set, which typically goes to the first team to score 15 points.

Meanwhile, Lambert never led by more than three points in the decisive set. But a pair of kills by M.K. Patten on either side of a Wolves timeout had the Longhorns up 14-12, putting them within touching distance of their first state championship in the sport and 41st in school history.

But the overturned decision started a 3-0 run by Buford.

With its back against the wall, Lambert received two key kills by Jordan White to tie the score at 15-15 and 16-16. But after saving one final championship point, the Longhorns could no longer hold off the Wolves, who also beat them during the regular season.

“We were right there,” Hall said. “We would side out every time they were at championship point. I loved the mental toughness of how they stayed in. We took big swings at big times.

“I was proud of the way they fought.”

Both teams showcased their talent while attempting to overcome obvious nerves in the first set.

Entering on a 19-match winning streak dating back more than a month, Lambert (36-8) played some of its best volleyball of the season in the opening points, as a trio of kills by Patten put the Longhorns up 8-6.

The Wolves (38-5) reeled off seven straight points to seemingly take control. But with the confidence gained from its 3-1 semifinal victory over juggernaut Walton, No. 3 Lambert began to chip away.

Eventually, a kill by Dani Cortes knotted the teams at 17. Down 20-18, Cortes produced another kill, and Claire Jenkins followed with an ace.

The Wolves took a brief 22-21 lead only to see the Longhorns post the final four points of the set.

“We didn’t let them go on many runs,” Hall said of the opening set. “We sided out really, really well. We distributed the ball well. M.K., in the first set, was unstoppable. She was on fire. We had some really key blocks in that first set. …

“They were as prepared as they could have been.”

Buford, winners of the 6A title in each of the previous two seasons, showed its pedigree by dominating the second and third sets.

In the second set, the Longhorns took a brief 12-11 lead on a block at the net by White and Kalyssa Taggart, but an 8-1 run by the Wolves completely flipped the momentum in the match. Outside of scoring the first two points — on a Cortes kill and Jenkins ace — Lambert never truly threatened in the third set, as Buford took a 2-1 overall lead.

The fourth set might have been the best of the bunch.

The Longhorns, needing a win to stay alive, held a 13-10 edge after a kill by Cortes and an ace from Francesca Popescu. A block moments later by White extended Lambert's lead to 15-11.

Five straight points by Buford quickly erased the advantage, giving the Wolves a 16-15 lead. But in a remarkable run of play, the teams exchanged points all the way until a 3-0 run by the Longhorns put them up 24-22.

A handful of kills from four different Lambert players saw the locals side out each time Buford took the lead. White tied the match at 16; Ella Beyer evened the score at 17; Taggart knotted things up at 18; and Patten restored parity at 19 and 20.

After falling behind 21-20, the Longhorns used a White kill and Cortes ace to take the lead. Beyer closed our the set with a kill to force a winner-take-all fifth.

“In the fourth set, we changed the lineup,” Hall said. “We turned the dial, so to speak. I started rotation four, and it really works better for us with the matchups that we had. We kept that same rotation in the fifth set, and we jumped out ahead. We played well, and they scraped back.”

Having dropped two tight sets (25-21 and 27-25) in the regular-season meeting, Lambert showed its improvement in winning close ones by capturing the first and fourth.

The Longhorns felt as though they had done enough to finish off the fifth set, as well, but it wasn't meant to be.

“Closing out is something we worked on from August on,” Hall said. “They’ve really started to capitalize when they should, and they did. It just didn’t bounce our way in that fifth set.”

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Lambert's Francesca Popescu passes the ball against Buford during the Class 7A state finals. (Photo by Nicholas Sullivan)
Despite the disappointing ending, the runner-up showing is still the best finish in program history.

“I’m so proud of the senior class for what they’ve done in four years,” Hall said of a group that included Beyer, Jenkins and White. “They’re going to be dearly missed.”

Hall noted that members of the team had the word "history" written on their arms or legs.

Obviously, the goal was to make history by becoming the first Lambert volleyball team to win a state championship. Then again, history had already been made by the group as soon as they walked onto the court for the program's first state finals appearance.

“They’ve made history so many times,” Hall said. “Four region championships. Beating Walton in the Final Four. Getting to the state championship. …

“Just wish we could have done one more thing. But they were close, as close as you can be.”