MISSION — Outside hitter Kassy Lerma and the Mission Veterans Patriots walked back out onto the court for the second set finding themselves in an unfamiliar situation.
The Patriots trailed early after Sharyland Pioneer jumped out to an early advantage seizing the first set, forcing them to play much of the contest from behind. It was an unusual spot for a team that has so easily handled its district matches for several years.
Lerma stepped up her play down the stretch, however, and with the help of some excellent back row defense, powered her team to victory, as Mission Veterans narrowly escaped with a 24-26, 25-23, 25-14, 25-23 district win over the Diamondbacks on Saturday at Sharyland Pioneer.
“At first we kind of had a rough start,” Lerma said. “But then we started talking and everything started clicking. It started coming along and we got into a rhythm.”
Pioneer jumped out to a pair of quick early leads in both the first and second sets. In the first, the Diamondbacks utilized strong offensive performances from Daniela Alvarez, Lorelai Hill and Daisy Monie.
The three relentlessly attacked the Mission Vets defense with one hard hit after another, eventually staving off a rally at the end from the visiting Patriots, who had problems in the early going consistently delivering serves over the net.
“Where I thought we struggled was on missed serves because we usually score five points when Bella (Dominguez) is serving,” Mission Veterans head coach Diana Lerma said. “She came out short on some of those serves which affected us, but in time she came back around.”
The Diamondbacks looked to be on their way to a second straight set win before Mission Vets made some offensive and defensive adjustments.
The Patriots gradually shifted the focus of their attack from hard hitting on the perimeter to angling tips toward the soft spots in Pioneer’s defense. That tweak made a significant impact on the game, as Mission Vets and Pioneer battled back and forth for the lead.
“Pioneer’s strongest point is digging; that’s what I feel like. Their hitting is good, too, but you can’t hit without a dig and a set,” Kassy Lerma said. “They know us as an outside hitting team and know that we’re always going to hit, so I feel like it changed the game because they weren’t expecting it more (than the hitting).”
The second major adjustment for the Patriots was shifting the focal point of the defense from the back row to the front along the net.
Dominguez, the team’s libero, was a tour-de-force along the back line for Mission Vets and ended the contest with a game-high 50 digs that helped keep the Patriots within striking distance with their backs against the wall.
But when Mission Veterans turned their attention to blocking to alleviate some of the pressure on Dominguez, it swung the game and momentum in the direction of the Patriots.
“They were tripping us up first because we didn’t know where they were going. Their setter is really good at hiding where she’s going to go,” Kassy Lerma said. “I was like, ‘New plan guys: We just jump and if you get it, you get it.’ It started working and they started getting kind of (down).”
The tactic had the added effect of limiting the impact of one of Pioneer’s marquee players in setter Natalie Reyes, who continued to set up her teammates who in turn sailed hits over the back line in order to clear Mission Veterans’ middle blockers positioned at the net.
“There were a lot of blocks and when you take away the setter, that’s one of the things that we were trying to do,” Diana Lerma said. “Since they were playing a 5-1, we were trying to take out their setter. It was a lot harder for them to run their offense without her.”
After those strategic adjustments, the tide began to turn as the Patriots outslugged the Diamondbacks to take the second set and even up the match. Lerma and her teammates felt an instant shift in energy on the floor after heading into the third.
“When we won the second game, we had a little flare. We were like, ‘Let’s not lose this,’” Kassy Lerma said. “They already had the first one under their belts. Then we had our advantage and just carried on the game, and we could feel them coming down too.”
The Patriots rolled through the third set, leading wire-to-wire. The fourth was the most competitive set of the afternoon with several ties and lead changes, but ultimately the power hitting of Lerma and freshman Riley Barnett proved too hot to handle for the Diamondbacks.
Lerma ended the day with a team-leading 25 kills and 16 digs, while Barnett chipped in 19 kills. Their play lifted the Patriots to their 17th consecutive win, having not lost a match since late August when they fell at Laredo United.
The Diamondbacks remain the only squad to take a set from Mission Vets during that span, losing to their district foe in four sets twice on the year.
Mission Veterans will look to remain undefeated in district play when it returns to the court to face Sharyland High at home at 7 p.m. Tuesday, while Sharyland Pioneer will look to rebound with a win in its final regular season match at PSJA Memorial at the same time.