McALLEN — In a back-and-forth affair that pitted two of the area’s top teams against one another, McAllen High triumphed over McAllen Memorial 25-17, 25-19 to win the 14th annual PoundFest Tournament championship Saturday at McAllen High School.
The Bulldogs and Mustangs spent the early part of the weekend burying some of the best teams throughout the Valley in the lead up to Saturday’s title match. Both squads tallied 6-0 records through pool play Thursday and Friday, positioning themselves as the top two seeds heading into the championship bracket.
McHi led off the day with a bang, knocking out Edinburg Vela in the quarterfinals in the morning before toppling cross-town rival McAllen Rowe in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Memorial stayed hot and maintained momentum in a quarterfinal victory over Edinburg North and semifinal win against a hard-hitting Brownsville Rivera squad.
In front of a raucous crowd and packed gym, the clash of the titans between McAllen’s finest lived up to its billing.
McHi and Memorial traded point for point in the early going with neither team able to gain meaningful separation. Both teams played near-perfect defense at the outset making points difficult to come by for a pair of explosive offenses.
The Mustangs and Bulldogs had to mostly rely on rare mistakes from their opposition to put points on the scoreboard and break up long, intense rallies with neither team leading by more than two in the first half of the opening set. McHi appeared to break the game open with a quick 5-0 run to build a bit of a lead, but Memorial immediately answered back with a five-point scoring spree of its own.
Middle blocker Demy Banks and outside hitter Evelyn Whitworth shined for the Mustangs, delivering some blistering-fast spikes toward the heart of McHi’s defense. On the other side, outside hitter Lexi Gonzalez led the way for the Bulldogs reeling off kill after kill to give her team a slight edge.
“She’s definitely our leader on the team,” McHi head coach Paula Dodge said of Gonzalez’s play. “She’s been working for four years on the varsity program. The girls look to her for strength all around, not just physically. They look to her to pull them all together and she does that. She’s a tremendous leader and competitor and person.”
As Memorial’s offensive attacks started to stray toward the sidelines and beyond, the Bulldogs scored the final six points of the first set to secure an eight-point victory.
The beginning of the second set mirrored much of the first, with McHi maintaining a slight advantage in the early going as Memorial got caught up in the net a few times too often.
With their backs against the wall down 16-10, however, the Mustangs came storming back and ran away with eight of the next 13 points to cut the deficit to three.
Banks and fellow middle blocker Jocelyn Fernandez denied any and all scoring chances that came their way from McHi, stuffing one return after the next along the front row. Setter Sydney Marburger set up her teammates with perfectly placed balls time and time again for Banks ad Whitworth, who put a little extra gas behind their attacks from the front corners.
For a few minutes, it felt like the Mustangs were just one or two big plays away from overtaking McHi and running away with the second set and the match’s momentum. But the Bulldogs, who stayed in constant communication, did everything in their power to keep the ball moving, thanks in large part to setters Madi Helmcamp and Madie Garza.
“In practice, we mostly just practice running a strong offense so it’s showing,” Helmcamp said.
A few fierce, chaotic rallies ensued with Bulldogs and Mustangs playing shots and returns off the net, the ceiling and each other. The biggest runs were all broken up by Helmcamp, who continued to deliver tip shots into the soft spots of the Memorial defense in key moments.
“Well, Memorial is really good at defense, but then they were pulling back a little,” she said. “So I decided to just dump it to end the point. On long rallies when you see the holes, you just go for it.”
The Mustangs continued fighting for a come-from-behind win until the bitter end when a bullet of a spike sailed just past the back corner, and the Bulldogs held on for six-point second set victory to win the tournament title.
“It’s just a wonderful way to start the season and it is just the beginning,” Dodge said. “We still have lots of work to do, things that we can definitely get better at and progressing throughout the season because we’re obviously going to see these two teams again during district play, Rowe and Memorial. Those were close matches back and forth and when we meet it’s anybody’s ball game.”
Gonzalez, the anchor of McHi’s vaunted offense, recorded a match-high 13 kills along with three blocks. After the game, she was awarded the PoundFest Tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
“We’re super stoked for the season. Knowing that we had this big win helps us a lot and it pushes us,” Gonzalez said. “It feels amazing to be recognized and I’m honored for this award.”
Helmcamp added four kills, eight assists and a block as part of a solid all-around performance. Garza and outside hitter Celina Saenz also played key roles in McHi’s victory, tallying nine assists and seven kills, respectively.
The tournament title has the Bulldogs riding high at the close of the season’s first week and optimistic about the season ahead.
“It’s been a good season so far,” Helmcamp said. “This win in this tournament really shows us that we have some talent and that we can always get better. I’m really excited because I feel like we should be one of the top teams — I mean, we are one of the top teams, but we should finish as one of the top teams and we should go pretty far in the playoffs.”
“Tournaments are just a prep for what we hope to do during district,” Dodge said. “It gets us a lot of experience working together in different situations. I’m sure their legs are a little tired right now, but it’s a good way to get us ready for what’s to come.”
McAllen Rowe toppled Brownsville Rivera 25-22, 25-16 in a rematch of Friday’s pool play action to win the third place game. In addition to finishing first, second and third, the three McAllen schools combined to go 25-2 in three days of tournament play.