By CLAIRE CRUZ, Special to the Star
HARLINGEN — A little adversity didn’t stop the favored McAllen High Lady Bulldogs as they faced off with the Harlingen South Lady Hawks in an area-round playoff matchup Saturday.
Despite being without star senior Lexi Gonzalez for much of the second set, McHi defeated South 25-14, 19-25, 25-13, 25-16 to advance to the regional quarterfinal round.
“We had to really work for it. … their defense is exceptional and just kept digging and digging,” McHi coach Paula Dodge said. “It’s the next level up now, so we have to polish up some things that we didn’t do well today and play hard.”
After leading the Bulldogs to a quick opening-set victory, Gonzalez went out early in the second after injuring her foot while landing after a kill. Concern for their teammate and the absence of such a key player left the Lady Bulldogs playing out of rhythm, and the Lady Hawks took advantage.
Led by hard-swinging senior Mikela Mireles, South kept McHi scrambled and opened a big lead. With her team trailing 19-15, Gonzalez returned to the court, accompanied by a thunderous cheer from the crowd from McAllen.
“I wanted to finish this playoff game for my senior year. A lot of adrenaline and just a lot of excitement got me through,” Gonzalez said.
South showed its tenacity and didn’t let the return stymie its momentum. The solid back row of the Lady Hawks, anchored by senior Zoe Garcia, extended rallies with tremendous digs to earn a 25-19 set win.
McHi responded with a dominating performance during the third set. South’s hitters struggled to get good swings, and poor communication led to the Lady Hawks dropping the set 25-13.
Both teams played their best in the fourth, leading to a back-and-forth frame filled with long, impressive rallies. Seniors Garcia, Mireles and Mya Aguirre did all they could to keep South’s season alive, but the deeper McHi lineup pulled away to close out the match with a 25-16 win.
“McHi is a tough opponent and we have a lot of respect for them, but I’m proud of my girls and how they fought,” South coach Anissa Lucio said. “We take pride in what we did this year. We had a good season.”
Though Gonzalez came back and played a good game, it was heavy-swinging sophomore Celina Saenz who carried the McHi offense. She stepped up in Gonzalez’s absence and took over the match with her booming kills.
“We’re really excited to make it back (to Round 3),” Saenz said. “Unfortunately we didn’t get to move on last year, but we really want to do it this year so we’re really excited for the chance.”