SAN ANTONIO – Among embraces with teammates and family, Dripping Springs High junior Avery Kalsu didn’t forget to give head volleyball coach Michael Kane an emotional bear hug Saturday on the South San Athletic Complex court.
Nearly 12-plus months of hard work all culminated to a seminal moment for the two.
By virtue of a grueling four set victory over the Boerne Champion Chargers in the Class 5A, Region IV final, Dripping Springs (33-15) officially punched its first ticket to the UIL state tournament since winning it all in 2015. The program also booked its fourth trip to state in the last seven seasons.
For Kalsu, rectifying last season’s run that fell a few steps short of state was the primary motivation.
“We wanted this so badly and we’ve been training so hard for this,” Kalsu said. “Our goal was to go to state and for everyone to experience it. We wanted it since last year. We’ve talked about it nonstop since the summer. It’s a surreal feeling to experience it with him (Kane) and to have that experience with him.”
The moment was equally thrilling for junior Mackenzie Murray, who tallied a team-high 14 kills against Champion, including the eventual game-winning point. Murray, who scored 22 total kills over the course of the regional tournament, felt it difficult to comprehend how massive the moment was.
“I’m still in shock. I can’t believe we just did that,” Murray said.
Kane lauded the resiliency of his program and their willingness to contribute at a moment’s notice, especially from players who come off of the bench. By spreading out the wealth, Dripping Springs scored a sweep of Gregory-Portland in the regional semifinals on Nov. 2, setting up its match with Champion for the right to go to state.
“These are kids who aren’t starters, but do the things that are expected of them,” Kane said.
But Dripping Springs found itself in an early hole Saturday when Champion scored a 29-27 first set win. Murray said it “shook” the team as it was the first time they had dropped the opening set of a match since district play began in September. Kane said he felt the team showed some nerves in the early going and had to battle from behind frequently.
The Tigers recovered for a 25-16 second set win, but struggled to keep pace with Champion in the third frame. Led by 6-foot, 1-inch senior Hannah Maddux, Champion did enough to stay a step ahead of the Tigers, eventually building an 18-13 advantage.
Working past Champion’s formidable block and strong defense was a consistent challenge. Kalsu said there was a sense of frustration early on as “nothing was going down,” adding the height of Champion’s front line was something they haven’t faced “in a while.”
However, the Tigers were forced to make adjustments, turning to different ways to score points. Manipulating the block, along with several other factors, helped to build confidence and concoct a late third set run.
Little by little, point by point, Dripping Springs chipped away at Champion’s lead, something Kane aimed for his team to do. When all was said and done, Dripping Springs outscored Champion 12-5 down the stretch to take a key 2-1 lead.
Dripping Springs kept that momentum into the final frame, holding firm and outlasting the Chargers. Kane said his team’s ability to not panic was critical.
Team chemistry ultimately helped Dripping Springs claw its way back into the match, Murray said.
Preparing for a final four brimming with perennial powerhouses is the mindset for Kane and his team. Their first test will be against a Lucas Lovejoy program that’s won five state titles.
But for Kane, making it to state meant defying expectations. Taking care of their business and letting things fall into place is how he has approached this season.
“This is the best feeling. I’m on top of the moon,” Kalsu said. “it’s so cool. We wanted this the entire season. This was a goal we could get and work for and seeing it pay off is the best experience I’ll have.”
Dripping Springs plays Lucas Lovejoy Friday at 1 p.m. at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland.