ALBANY — Had a handful of points fallen the other way early, the Brownwood Lady Lions could have been the team preparing for the second round of the playoffs. Despite giving District 5-4A champion Vernon all it could handle in the first two sets, the Lady Lions' season ended in the bi-district round of the playoffs with a 27-25, 26-24, 25-15 loss Monday night.
Opportunities presented themselves for the 6-4A fourth seed Lady Lions (20-20), who were seeking their first postseason victory since 2009. But Brownwood was unable to cash in as Vernon (30-12) advanced to the area round of the playoffs.
"I'm not that disappointed in how we played, we did a lot of good things, but just a few crucial errors were the difference in the game," said Lady Lions head coach Lorrie Beelby, who has guided Brownwood to the playoffs in each of her three seasons. "We had too many unforced errors, and I feel like I say that every game. Then a couple of times Vernon would send an over pass or a free ball or a serve that we watched hit. You just can't do that in a playoff game. You've got to attack the ball."
Jenna Lyons posted 13 kills to pace the Brownwood offense trailed by seven from Kristen Fuentes, five from Payton Kallman, four from Bailey Randle, two from Mikaela Smith and one from Kayla McFarden.
Makenzie Simmons distributed 32 assists, while Fuentes served a pair of aces and Randle, Lyons, McFarden, Kallman and Simmons added one apiece.
On the defensive end, McFarden collected 25 digs trailed by Lyons with 14, Simmons with eight, Kristi Ward with six, Randle with five, Fuentes with four, Smith with three, Cidnee Howard with two and Kallman with one.
At the net, Smith tallied three blocks, Randle added 2.5, Kallman was credited with 1.5 and Simmons chipped in one.
In the opening 27-25 loss to Vernon, the Lady Lions jumped out to a quick 10-6 lead, with a Fuentes kill creating the four-point margin. Vernon gradually chipped away at Brownwood's lead and grabbed an 18-16 edge, but the Lady Lions refused to fade away.
A kill by Lyons, a block from Smith and a spike by Fuentes that Vernon couldn't get a handle on resulted in Brownwood reclaiming a 19-18 advantage.
Vernon regained the lead, which it stretched to 23-21, but two kills from Fuentes and a dual block by Kallman and Randle allowed the Lady Lions to draw even at 24.
Brownwood again fell behind, 25-24, but Lyons delivered a kill to knot the score at 25. Vernon, however, was able to tally the next two points and the opening-set win.
In the second set, Brownwood found itself in a 5-0 hole and was forced to claw its way back. The Lady Lions never lead, but remained within striking distance. Trailing 20-16, Brownwood finally made its move.
A 7-3 run by Brownwood — which featured kills from Randle, Lyons and Fuentes, along with some rare Vernon miscues — allowed the Lady Lions to even the score at 23. Randle then served an ace as the Lady Lions took their first lead of the set and were on the verge of evening the match with a 24-23 lead.
Vernon, however, stunned the Lady Lions with three consecutive points to grab a commanding 2-0 advantage.
"I knew we were very evenly matched with them," Beelby said. "They just came out so aggressively with their hitters. We've seen that before, Stephenville hit hard at us, but Vernon just kept coming. Our hitters had several unforced errors and we were plagued by a number of missed serves but a bunch of people that don't normally miss serves. Nerves may have played a part in that, but you have to overcome that when it comes to the playoffs."
Down 6-2 early in the third set, the Lady Lions were again forced into catchup mode. Brownwood closed to within 11-9, but Vernon answered with five of the next six points to open its largest lead of the match to that point, 16-10. The deficit gradually increased for Brownwood, reaching double figures at 22-12, as no breaks went the Lady Lions' way down the stretch.
"I don't think we ran out of gas, there were just several points that were flat out bad luck," Beelby said. "When a ball rolls along the top of the net and comes down on your side, there's not a lot you can do. We weren't executing efficiently, but Vernon was playing great defensively. We'd get a great hit and they'd come up with the dig. I know that frustrated our hitters."
Despite the first-round exit, the Lady Lions improved on their win total for a third consecutive season. Reflecting, Beelby said she was pleased with the progress the program made in 2015 and anticipates an even brighter future.
"I thought we had a good year," Beelby said. "We have three seniors and three sophomores, so we're still fairly young. I'm excited about the future of this program and I think we'll keep getting better. I'm disappointed tonight, but unless you go all the way you never want it to end when it does.
"I'm proud of the players. This is such a fun group to coach, I love them to death and I'm definitely going to miss our three seniors."
Fuentes, Kallman and Ward played their final volleyball game as Lady Lions.