At the end of the third set of the second Class 4A State Volleyball semifinal, the Oklahoma Christian School Saints trailed the eventual 2019 State Champions Lincoln Christian by just a single overall point.
Tallied, It was 71-70, and Lincoln Christian — boasting experience from last year’s Class 3A State Tourney win — had just wrested control of a crucial, third frame at 26-24. That third frame win gave an experienced Lincoln Christian the momentum needed to take the semifinal in four sets Saturday afternoon.
Despite the outcome, Oklahoma Christian School head coach Rachel Sinclair was proud of just how well her team competed against the Lincoln Christian squad.
“I feel like they gave everything they had,” she said. “I didn’t question their hearts at all.”
Sinclair was excited to see her team rise to the occasion in a pressurized tournament — something she said is unreplicable outside of the confines of the state tournament’s bracket.
“In general, the competition creates a level of pressure unlike any other level of competition. You cannot reproduce it,” she said.
The Saints met that pressure throughout the majority of Saturday’s semifinal. Even as close as the third frame was — with each team having a look at set-point — that might not have even been the closest of the match. That one would go to the match’s second set.
In that second frame most of the first 24 rallies saw ties at alternating points. After two serves it was 1-1, then 2-2, etc, etc. Lincoln Christian skipped a tie at 4-all, and looked to have the Saints scrambling near the 6-all mark, but Avery Nield capped off a scrappy, defensive effort with an impressive pass to facilitate a Mary Streller kill. Neild, running west with her back to the net, bump-set the ball near 30 feet across the court. The pass was right on the money for Streller, and she put it down for the games fifth tie of the set. There would be 15 total in the second alone.
Out of system, that’s what Sinclair would call it on reference. She said her team focuses on that aspect of hitting in almost every session of practice. Sometimes things get hectic: a dig goes awry, it has the setter move away from the comforts of the front of the net. Nield’s assist to Streller there — with Lincoln threatening to shutter off on a run — was the embodiment of a season’s worth of practice.
Nield’s assist to Streller was the easy thing to notice. Sinclair said she was doing other, less-noticeable things to help benefit her hitters’ success throughout the semifinal Saturday.
“When she’s at the net she’s setting the hitter while seeing the blockers,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair was a collegiate-level setter, and she said her sophomore assister was doing things she didn’t learn until her time at the University of Central Oklahoma.
“Often times you’ll see the middle blocker move one way and she was seeing that out of her peripheral vision,” Sinclair said. “She was getting our hitters one-on-one chances and that favors our hitters.”
Streller’s equalizer at six was the halfway point of the tie-spree. They’d knot at each alternating point from there all the way to 12, before a 3-0 Lincoln Christian run forced a timeout from Sinclair.
After the break, the team answered, especially behind a scrappy defense led by libero Lowery Beard.
“One person doesn’t control it, but she is definitely the rock of our defense,” Sinclair said of Beard.
And with that they’d claw back. Eden Dowell hit a cross-court score to mark OCS’s 14th point of the set, before she bounced another to tie things back up at 17. Then 18 saw a tie, then 19, and 20.
But 20 was the final of the second’s 15 ties, and Lincoln Christian separated late to take it 25-20. It’d be the first of two, close sets to go the Bulldogs’ way, and after it felt like a minuscule number of rallies had separated the Saints from dropping the eventual state champions across Saturday’s first three sets.
“I think they were two equally matched teams. I think we were every bit of talented as they were,” Sinclair said. “I think it could have gone either way. I just think when you have a situation like that — a high pressure match — and the third set went their way, it’s really hard to continue to manage the stress of the competition and keep the level of belief to come back against a team like that has momentum. The belief, the momentum was just enough to tilt it their way and it makes it difficult to overcome that.”
Lincoln Christian would take the fourth 25-12 to close things out, sending themselves to Saturday’s finals where they eventually upset No. 1 ranked Regent Prep for the 2019 title. Streller led the OCS team with 14 total kills and four each in the first and third sets. Ashton Major had 12 — an even three split across all four sets. Eden Dowell added another eight kills, and freshman Maggie Bookout had another eight herself.
Despite the loss, it was still the farthest OCS has progressed into the state volleyball tournament, a good cap for a successful season according to Sinclair.
“We’ve had an amazing season. We’ve accomplished things, and I’m proud of that,” she said. “I’m proud of these girls for that. I feel like the level of ball that we played was phenomenal from all the girls. They played as a team, they were a unit, they played with mental toughness. They exhausted everything this year.”
The Saints finish the year in 4A’s top 4, with a season-long record of 29 wins and just five losses.