GARLAND – The Bushland Lady Falcons are once again the queens of Class 3A.
In what’s become one of the best rivalries at the UIL state tournament at the Curtis Culwell Center, Bushland avenged a loss to Gunter from last year’s state championship, taking down the Lady Tigers in four-sets, 25-22, 25-23, 20-25, 25-23, on Saturday to claim their third state title in the past four years.
Making their 12th appearance at the state tourney since the doors opened in 2006, Bushland adds more hardware to an already stacked trophy case bringing back the seventh volleyball championship in program history. Bushland is only three behind Amarillo High’s 10 titles for most in the Texas Panhandle.
“This says we’re a community of hard workers that put a lot into our young women and young men,” Bushland head coach Jason Culpepper said. “When the doors opened, Makesha Maupin came in and started this program and got it going. It’s my pleasure to keep it rolling.”
Facing Gunter for a third straight year in this same showdown, Saturday’s match started off much like last year’s. Gunter took full control in the first set leading 21-14. However, the Lady Falcons put together an impressive rally going on an 11-2 run highlighted by an offensive onslaught from Jayce Ornelas who had three kills in that rally.
“Volleyball is a cruel sport,” Culpepper said. “Momentum can always sway to both sides. No leads were safe. We rallied and played best we could. We had some big swings and made comebacks and that is what makes volleyball such a great game.”
Bushland won another close second set winning three of the last four points with Abby Howell getting a kill to close it out. Gunter though, didn’t go away. Playing behind hard-hitting Chloe Johnson the Lady Tigers were able to get back in it with a third set victory.
The Lady Tigers looked primed to take it to a fifth set jumping out to a 19-13 fourth set advantage. But once again, Bushland never flinched, storming back going on a 12-4 run to win the state championship with the final two historic points coming on a Mackenzie Sims ace followed by a Sims kill to start the celebration.
“This is just an unbelievable feeling,” Sims said. “Working with this team and how hard we fought is incredible. We all just wanted to come down here and get a win.”
“What a great match,” Culpepper said. “Gunter is an outstanding team and is very well coached. I thought we played are hearts out. We made a few adjustments, and we were outstanding. They have great middle blockers, but our middles did awesome today.”
First-year Gunter coach Toree Winchell, a 2005 Dalhart graduate that played for Culpepper when he was the head coach of the Lady Wolves, echoed her mentors’ comments.
“We fought hard,” Winchell said. “We were point for point and stat for stat with them. We played a clean game it just came down to a few balls that didn’t go our way.”
Following the match Culpepper and Winchell shared a hug and an emotional moment on the court.
“We just congratulated each other,” Winchell said. “We both talked about how hard it is to get here. He’s been here multiple times. He told me he was proud of me which I appreciate so it’s like a full circle moment.”
“She said to me that it’s amazing a Dalhart girl would get to play in this game,” Culpepper said. “To see a girl who I help coach now coaching in the state title game is fulfilling for me. I’m so proud of her.”
For Culpepper, his team ends the year at 43-6 overall and on an 18-game win streak. The veteran coach adds to his legacy winning his fourth overall and third at Bushland in five years boasting a career record of 789-149.
Sims was named the State Tournament MVP as the junior setter finished the game putting together a triple-double with 30 assists, 15 digs and 10 kills. Sims, a legacy player for the Lady Falcons, joins her older sister, Jalee, who won a state championship at Bushland in 2016.
Playing in her final volleyball match of her high school career, senior Abby Howell, the Region I-3A Tournament MVP, had 14 kills, Ornelas had seven kills and Avery Ramos made 20 digs.
“It’s incredible,” Howell said. “I’ve been here three times and came away with three state championships. Being a senior and winning this is unbelievable. This is the last game I’ll ever play and it was very emotional.”
For a look at the full box score please visit, http://bit.ly/3G83laE