The Tioga Lady Bulldogs finished their improbable run to the state finals with an exciting, hard-fought victory over the Bronte Lady Longhorns to earn the title of Class 1A state champions.
That title did not come easy, though.
Tioga outlasted the Lady Longhorns in a five-set match that went back and forth before the Lady Bulldogs pulled out a 25-23, 18-25, 25-12, 20-25, 15-11 win.
In the fifth and deciding set, the Lady Bulldogs trailed four different times before pulling off the thrilling, come-from-behind win.
“They started to panic there just a little bit I think,” said Tioga coach Mindy Patton about the final game. “We were behind 4-1, and I called the timeout just to get them collected. Once they caught their breath, they said ‘we are going to do this’ – and they did.”
The upstart Lady Bulldogs have only had a varsity team for three years, and rode to the playoffs completely under everyone’s radar.
Tioga did not make the polls all year, giving the team an underdog appeal. That is something that Patton and her team said helped keep them motivated.
“Even when we would beat a bigger school at tournaments, people would say the other school must have played a bad game. Nobody thought it was because we could be pretty good,” said junior Destini Maness. “All year long we were always under estimated. Now maybe they realize we are not that bad.”
The final match was the third time in the playoffs that Tioga had to go to a fifth and deciding set to win the match.
Against Avalon, Tioga won the final game 15-13. They beat Blum with the help of a 17-15 game five win.
The prior two times proved to be no fluke, as once again the Lady Bulldogs persevered.
“We knew coming into game five that it was winnable because we had been there before,” said Maness. “And I knew the match was over when I looked back and saw it was Paityn [Glaze] serving. She always seems to be serving match point for us.”
Glaze was excited when it again was serving for the match, and the state championship.
“We work on it all season,” she said. “Coach Patton has us practice serving match point at the state championship all year. Get it in or we lose. I was happy it was me serving for the match. I had confidence because of all the practice.”
Fittingly, on the final point, it was junior Andrea Perez who put the match – and the state title –away with on final tip of the ball.
Perez finished the match with 34 kills and was named the tournament’s MVP.
That was not surprising to Patton.
“Andrea is an outstanding player and leader,” she said. “She leads by example. She is always there to help calm the team down when they need it.”
Perez was quick to point to her team for helping her achieve the award.
“I could not have done it without my team. They have pushed me to be a better player,” she said. “It takes a great pass to make a kill, and they always make great passes.”
When Perez’s final hit found the floor, the crowd at the Curtis Cullwell Center in Garland erupted.
“This was the biggest crowd we have had by far,” said Maness. “It meant so much to us that we had that big of a crowd at state. I think the whole town was there!”
Tioga had won their first state title on their first trip to the state tournament.
“We had the whole town behind us,” said sophomore Emma Stonebraker. “For them to feel the joy with us was so great.”
The Lady Bulldogs’ trip to the state tournament was one only they could dream of.
“It’s always a goal, but it seemed so distant at the beginning of the year,” said Glaze. “It’s pretty unreal. It’s a dream come true.”
The Lady Bulldogs have a core of underclassmen who pushed the team to new heights.
Besides Perez, up and down the lineup, one can see underclassmen.
The Lady Bulldogs will graduate two seniors, and they will be missed, but their core is filled with juniors and sophomores.
Junior Brittany Barnett had 37 assists in the state final match.
Glaze, also a junior, finished the match with 30 digs in the finals.
Maness and Stonebraker each had five kills in the match, while freshman Carly Hough added seven kills.
“Throughout the entire playoffs, our underclassmen really stepped up,” said Patton. “Our sophomores and freshman have played so well that we don’t have a weak rotation at all.”
That says the Lady Bulldogs should be competitive for the for-seeable future, and that they will not be over-looked next year.
“We will be back next year. Now that we have been here, we want to get back here again,” said Maness.
Tioga finishes the season with a 31-14 record, but most importantly they are the state champions.
“It’s such an awesome feeling,” said Patton. “I am so proud of this team.”
To become the first state championship team since the high school was reopened is something many thought was a distant dream. That dream has become a reality.
All the hard work paid off, but there is still more work to do.
“There will be no sleep tonight; we have tests to study for,” said Perez with a smile.
That smile that was shared throughout the team, and throughout the town, as the team arrived home to a champions welcome.
The team bus drove under the arches of water created by the local fire departments. The flashing lights of the police cars and fire trucks lit up Florence Street in front of the school. Fans of all ages cheered and clapped for the arriving state champions.
“We knew we had fans, but this was amazing,” said Perez. “It’s pretty outstanding. For them to show up and welcome us home like this was great.”
“It was pretty cool for little kids to come up and tell us they ‘want to be like us,’” Stonebraker said.