By BRETT MARSHALL
The Garden City High School girls volleyball team had several firsts on Thursday night at The Garden when it hosted a quadrangular meet with Western Athletic Conference opponents Great Bend and Liberal, and nearby Class 3A Holcomb.
And while the three-matches were never a breeze, the Lady Buffs nonetheless completed a perfect 3-0 night when they rallied to beat Holcomb in three sets (28-30, 25-13, 25-20), following straight set wins over their WAC foes (Great Bend: 25-22, 25-22) and Liberal (25-13, 25-18).
That opening win of the day over Great Bend provided new GCHS coach Sara Stecki with her first triumph while the final victory over the Lady Longhorns allowed the Buffs to go unbeaten at their home meet for the first time in several years.
Holcomb, meanwhile, split its remaining two matches against the WAC teams, beating Liberal (25-23, 25-22) while coming up short against Great Bend (25-9, 25-22). It was the second straight season coach Jennifer Barrett's team won against one of the Class 5A opponents.
For Stecki, the improvement her team displayed from Tuesday's twin losses to Newton and Salina Central was most evident with the passing skills of her players.
"The passing is so amazing from where we started," Stecki said. "It's our strongest area. We've improved so much, and we're serving better."
The three wins pushed the Lady Buffs to 3-2 on the young season. They will be idle until Sept. 10 when they travel to the Valley Center Invitational. Holcomb, meanwhile, is also 3-2, having won both its season-opening matches on Tuesday in Lakin before their 1-2 effort on Thursday.
"I'm extremely proud of the girls," Barrett said. "They came into Garden's court, with their crowd and they competed with a 6A school. They really came in and weren't intimidated. They showed that they could come in and compete, and they did."
In the anticipated final match of the night between Holcomb and Garden City, the Lady Longhorns jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first set. The Lady Buffs rallied midway through, tying the score at 13 before taking leads of 17-14 and 22-18. Then Holcomb came back to tie the score at 24. Both teams traded points before the Longhorns finally squeezed out a winning point for the 30-28 victory.
"Holcomb is a scrappy team," said Garden City's Kristen Heiman. "They don't let anything hit the floor. We fought through it and found a way to win."
Heiman, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter, was dominant at times in the final two sets as the Lady Buffs were in command early in the second set en route to a convincing 25-13 victory. The stage was set for the finale and it didn't disappoint the large, raucous crowd, which included the Garden City football team.
"I loved the support, it really pumped up the girls," Stecki said. "I think at first they were overly excited, but I hope this shows the girls how hard they've worked and how far they've come. We've got lots of room for improvement, but I told them late they have to play to win, not to lose. They can't be afraid to make mistakes. I told them not to play it safe."
In that final set, Holcomb led 5-2 early, then the Lady Buffs tied at 10. It was back and forth with the last tie coming at 16 before Garden went up 21-17 on a kill by Heiman. Holcomb made one final surge, and scored three straight points to pull within one at 21-20. The Lady Buffs, however, responded with the final four points as Heiman served the final winning point.
The Lady Buffs previously responded down the stretch in the two sets against Great Bend, coming up with clutch points to earn the sweep. They were dominant against Liberal, trailing only once in the two sets and never by more than a point.
"They're getting more comfortable with each other and they're learning how to be court smart," Stecki said. "My heart's still going fast. It was very exciting."
For Holcomb's Barrett, she took the night's performance as an encouraging sign.
"We stayed aggressive and tried to control our side of the court," Barrett said. "There's no excuses tonight. We're banged up a bit, but the girls left it all on the court. There's nothing more a coach can ask."
The Lady Longhorns travel to South Gray on Tuesday.