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Volleyball: Lambert uses depth to sweep Hillgrove, reach Final Four
Dani Cortes
Lambert freshman Dani Cortes, center, and sophomore Jordan White, right, go up for a block Tuesday during the Longhorns' 3-0 win against Hillgrove in the Elite Eight. - photo by David Roberts

Not many volleyball teams can lose three starters and win an Elite Eight match 3-0.

Not many volleyball teams have Lambert's depth.

Despite missing Ella Beyer, Sarah Black and Megan Martin, the Longhorns swept their way past Hillgrove and into the Final Four on Tuesday, beating the Hawks 3-0. Lambert won 25-12, 27-25, 25-14.

The Longhorns played without the three players, who were quarantined because of a potential exposure to COVID-19.

"It's just a testament to how connected they are and how hard they work in practice," Lambert head coach Missey Hall said. "We were getting messages in the middle of practice, 'This one's out, that one's out,' and we just put the puzzle back together and they didn't panic. I really believe they believed they could do it."

Still, Lambert's players found ways to kept their teammates updated during the match.

"They were on Facetime the whole game," Hall said. "They were on Facetime for the pregame rituals. Making sure we stay connected even when they weren't here was important to us."

Lambert's only real trouble of the match came during the second set, when Hillgrove rallied to a 25-25 tie. But Bella Tolone turned a one-handed desperation shot into a kill when the ball traveled across the net and fell just inside the line, then Jordan White spiked a ball at the net to give the Longhorns the win. 

Nithilaa Karthikeyan
Nithilaa Karthikeyan prepares to serve Tuesday during Lambert's 3-0 win against Hillgrove in the Elite Eight. - photo by David Roberts
Hall relied on a pair of underclassmen in Dani Cortes and Nithilaa Karthikeyan to fill in the holes.

For Cortes, that meant shedding her typical position on the back line to play right-side blocker. She replied with a seven digs and a pair of blocks — her first blocks of the season.

"Dani is a defensive specialist, but tonight she was a right-side blocker," Hall said. "She's a Crossfit kid, and she's a real athlete and been a real sponge all season. She's grown and grown and grown. We tasked her with what we needed her to do and she did it. She got touches on the blocks, she had two assist blocks tonight, kept the ball in play; I don't think she had any hitting errors. Great athlete. The future is bright for her, definitely."

Tolone led with 18 kills and 19 assists, adding three blocks. 

White and Molly Kate Patten each had a team-high six blocks, while White also had six kills. Taylor Nelson had 12 kills and three blocks, while Miranda Hardin led the Longhorns with 17 digs and Clarisse Evangelista had nine digs.

In fact, Evangelista logged the match's game-winning point when her ace fell to the floor and gave the Longhorns a 25-14 win. 

Karthikeyan split the setting duties with Tolone and had 17 assists.

"She set for our JV and led them to a region championship," Hall said of Karthikeyan. "She's grown immensely this year. She's always been part of the varsity roster, but she got a lot of reps in JV. We felt comfortable putting her out there and she rose to the occasion."

Lambert's win shared some similarities with last season's win against Hillgrove in the playoffs. Then, the Longhorns rallied to win a fifth-set tiebreaker after Beyer hurt her ankle and left the match.

Just as last year, Lambert shuffled its lineup and got the win.

"We said last night (that) adversity can't define how this season's going to end," Hall said. "Every day's been a blessing, and we just couldn't let it end that way."

Hall said she didn't know until the end of practice Monday who would be available for Tuesday's match.

But once Hall told Cortes where she needed her, Cortes was dialed in. 

"Absolutely no blink, no worry, no shock. She got in there and did it," Hall said. "We're supposed to stop practicing at 5:30 because basketball is coming for tryouts. We got the message at 5:10 and we had to switch everything then. She came in and was ready to go."

Lambert (29-3) will travel to Alpharetta Saturday with a state championship berth on the line. The winner of Lambert/Alpharetta will face the North Gwinnett/Walton winner on Nov. 7 in the championship.

Hall said she does not know whether Beyer, Black or Martin will return Saturday.

"We're hoping to," she said. "At this point in my life, I don't speculate on anything. All I can do is say a prayer and hope for the best."