Lambert dispatched Brookwood in straight sets (25-9, 25-17, 25-14) Tuesday in Gwinnett County to punch its ticket to the Class 7A state Final Four. The third-ranked Longhorns, who have now reached the semifinal stage for the second time in three years, will face longtime nemesis and No. 4 Walton for a berth in the title match.
In an unwelcoming environment – complete with vocal student section and sweltering heat – Lambert quickly took control. The Region 6-7A champions reeled off the first seven points of the match, including three kills by Kalyssa Taggart.
“I feel like the girls do a really good job focusing,” Longhorns head coach Missey Hall said. “We have loud practices. One of our players, Marisa [Whitley], has fake fan noise that we use a lot.
“I came and scouted on Saturday. I prepared them for a rowdy scene. It’s a smaller atmosphere, more intimate. They were going to have to tune some things out and really focus. I felt like they did a great job of that.”
Buoyed by the quick start, Lambert (35-7) extended its lead to 22-5 before closing out the opening set with ease.
“They executed so well,” Hall said. “Served tough. When the ball did come back us, we had a really solid offense. We varied the offense. Everybody contributed. I was very pleased with the first 10 points, for sure.”
Predictably, Brookwood, which won the Region 4-7A championship, provided a tougher resistance in the second set. The Broncos were within 15-13 during the set before a 5-0 run by the Longhorns put the visitors back in charge.
“I feel good about the way they bounced back,” Hall said. “We usually don’t let other teams go on very long serving runs. We are able to side out pretty well.
“In the second set, we made quite a few unforced errors and helped them out quite a bit.”
The third set offered up Brookwood's best opening stretch, with the Broncos forcing Hall to call a timeout with the score even at 7-apiece. Out of the stoppage, the Broncos took their first lead of the match.
Lambert's M.K. Patten responded with a kill to tie the score, and after the Longhorns went back ahead at 9-8, they led the rest of the way.
“We just needed to refocus,” Hall said of using the timeout. “We were making some poor choices offensively. Just regroup and discuss where our matchups were, where the holes are on their court. They got refocused. Just needed a little touch up.”
Patten and Taggart paced the Lambert offense with 13 kills each. Jordan White added five kills. Taggart dished out a dozen assists, while Claire Jenkins handed out a team-high 21.
“We’re at our best when we’re able to utilize all three of our hitters,” Hall said. “We’ve been doing that so much since we played at Guntersville. Our setters are confident setting everybody; our hitters are ready all of the time. When we can vary our offense, it’s a good day for us.”
Taggart continued her stellar run of postseason play. The versatile freshman added a team-high three blocks, three digs and a pair of aces.
“She’s been an athlete forever,” Hall said of Taggart, whom she had in class as a third-grader. “Great soccer player. Plays high-level club ball. I knew she would translate really, really well.
“The thing about Kalyssa is that she does so many things well. She hits, she sets, she serves, she defends and she blocks. It’s really awesome to see, and it’s even more awesome to know she has three more years.”
Libero Francesca Popescu isn't a freshman, but the sophomore will be back to lead the Longhorns defense for a couple of more seasons. Her work Tuesday helped ensure that her second varsity campaign would continue at least one more round.
Despite needing to be iced down on the sideline during her short, infrequent trips to the bench, Popescu led the team in aces (3) and digs (20),
“She is an amazing defender,” Hall said. “She reads all hitters so well. She defends tips and hard-driven hits. Her serve receive is flawless. I’m always shocked when teams will serve her, but then I realize that she covers so much of the court that it’s very hard to keep the ball out of her hands.”
Lambert's unfortunate reward for reaching the Final Four is a matchup with a Walton program that denied the Longhorns a semifinal trip last fall. In fact, the Raiders have been a thorn in the side of Hall and Co. for years.
Often, those previous meetings would take place in the Elite Eight. This time around, a trip to the state finals to meet either No. 2 North Gwinnett or top-ranked Buford will be on the line.
“We’re used to being road warriors,” Hall said. “We traveled well tonight. The fans were incredible. We are so appreciative of our parents and our fan section.
“It doesn’t matter where we play. The court is the same size; the net is the same height. You’ve got to bring that focus to the court — whether we’re playing at home or away.”