By BRETT MARSHALL
It might have looked like an instant replay for the Garden City High School volleyball team at Saturday's Class 6A sub-state tournament.
Playing host to two of the eight sub-state brackets at the GCHS gymnasium, the Lady Buffaloes once again reached the championship game of their bracket, just as they had in 2011 at Dodge City.
The outcome was the same — a two-set loss to Maize High (28-26, 25-12) — just as it was to Wichita Northwest a year ago.
Unlike a year ago, though, the Lady Buffs were right in the mix in this one, at least in the first set, when they put all their chips on the court and rolled the dice.
Trailing by as many as six points in one stretch (19-13), the Lady Buffs rallied to knot the score at 23 before taking 1-point leads with set point in the offing, but couldn't close the door on the Lady Eagles.
"I really feel if we'd won that first game, it would've been a different second game," GCHS second-year coach Sara Stecki said. "The girls really wanted it. They fought with a lot of heart. They put so much into it, and I think after losing it, mentally we just didn't come back. We didn't put any pressure on them in that second game."
A kill that went deep prevented the Buffs from claiming the first set when they were leading 24-23. They were unable to get a defensive hit back against Maize when up 25-24, and then a sideline kill also went wide when they had a 26-25 edge. Maize would close it out with two straight points when Garden was called for a lift and couldn't get a return against a tough hit to the side by Maize.
"We were close," Stecki said of those final points. "We had a couple of kills that were barely out. It hurts. It always does, especially when it's the end of the season, and the end for the seniors. They've been a great group. I love 'em all. They're very special."
After that heart-stealing first set loss, the Lady Buffs just didn't have much left. And it showed.
Whereas they had played error-free for much of the day, serving as well as they had all season and making point-saving shots, blocking and getting strong offensive play, it all just unraveled in that last set. They trailed 5-1 at the outset, fell behind further at 12-4 and 13-5 before a mini-rally pulled them to within 14-10. They would put the ball into the net twice thereafter and trailed 19-11. Maize scored the final six points as the Lady Buffs couldn't muster one final comeback.
"Our blocks were not quite there for much of that match," Stecki said. "That last set, we just forced plays and I think the girls just put too much pressure on themselves to win points. I thought early, our defense was amazing. We were hitting very aggressively and doing the things that it takes to win."
In their semifinal match against Wichita North, the Lady Buffs were simply too much for the Lady Redskins.
Having put the previous Tuesday's double-losses to Goddard Eisenhower and Maize South behind them, the Lady Buffs were clicking on all cylinders in the semis.
They were so dominant in fact that they never trailed in either set of the 25-10, 25-10 triumph.
In the opening set, getting strong service from everyone and both front line and back row stellar efforts, the Lady Buffs went on a roll.
From 5-1 they went up 11-6, 16-6 and eventually 20-10 before scoring the final five points of the set.
It was more of the same in the second set as they opened with a 5-0 advantage, moved it to 10-3 before rolling on to the easy, straight-set triumph.
Maize had advanced to the championship match with a 25-12, 25-7 win over Wichita South. The Lady Buffs conclude the season with a 19-15 record and are now 41-30 under Stecki in her two seasons. They have won the Western Athletic Conference both years.
In the other sub-state bracket, top-seeded and No. 5-ranked Wichita Northwest was extended to three sets by Hutchinson before rallying for a 19-25, 25-9, 25-20 victory to also advance to the state tournament on Friday in Topeka. Northwest had won its semifinal match over Campus, 25-22, 25-14, while Hutchinson had downed Dodge City 25-22, 25-19.