MANDEVILLE – The postgame tears were already obvious when Denham Springs volleyball coach Pam Dubuy brought her five seniors together for a group embrace.
Then it was a collective waterfall.
“They’re my babies,” Dubuy said.
This year’s senior class – Shelby Prest, Olivia Alexander, Peyton Watson, Sydni Mayo and Brianna Heil – were part of Denham Springs’ freshman team, which Dubuy coached in her first season at the school.
Dubuy was elevated to head coach the next season, and she’s guided the Lady Jackets to postseason play in two of the last three years – a journey that officially ended Thursday in defeat.
Denham Springs certainly didn’t play the part of No. 28 seed, not only taking the first set 25-20 against No. 5 Mandeville but coming ever so close to doing it again in the third set.
Instead of a victorious send off for her seniors, Dubuy clutched them close after the Lady Skippers rallied for a 25-15, 25-23, 2-13 victory in a Division I state playoff opener played at Mandeville High School.
“I told them how proud I was of them on and off the court,” Dubuy said. “We’ve had a close-knit relationship. It’s been a little different with them.”
Denham Springs (17-24) put all the pieces together for arguably one its best sets of the season.
The Lady Jackets forged a 7-2 lead on a serve-receive error with Sophie Faircloth serving and never allowed the Lady Skippers to get any closer than two points.
“I thought Denham Springs played an excellent match,” Mandeville coach Rachel Schulingkamp said. “We hadn’t seen them this year and truly didn’t know what to expect. We knew we had to come in and control our half of the court and Denham Springs did a great job of keeping the ball in play, digging us over and over. We made way too many hitting errors and passing errors to create any rhythm for ourselves.”
Mandeville (26-11) closed to within 16-14 with a stretch of five unanswered points with a surge from its powerful hitters.
Mayo’s kill off an assist from Prest finally halted Mandeville’s run and ignited Denham Springs, which got a pair of kills from Kailey Dunham and a block from Prest to make it 21-16.
The Lady Jackets took advantage of a long return, coupled with a block from Faircloth and Destiny Nassri and kill from Mayo, to close out the first set.
“It was like drinking a Red Bull,” Prest said. “There was so much energy. We had to keep that mentality, keep that momentum. But it didn’t stick the entire time.”
Despite a jovial huddle, Dubuy implored her team to maintain its same level of play.
“I told them not let’s do like we’ve done this season of playing a really good game and then sit back and play on our heels,” she said. “They started out like that (second set) and then they fought back.”
DSHS and Mandeville were tied six times in the second set when a serve-receive error against the Lady Jackets opened the door for the Lady Skippers, who took the lead for good at 12-11.
“I don’t think any of our kids were expecting to come out and have such a tough match,” Schulingkamp said. “I told them after the first set that was my fault because I needed to prepare them better mentally because they were more than physically prepared. It was their job in the next three (sets) to prove that.”
Led by setter Ashlynn Anderson, who had 47 assists, Mandeville outscored DSHS 11-2 for a 22-13 advantage and 6-foot-4 middle blocker Sadie Gomez had a kill and a block to finish out the set.
DSHS pushed back in the third, playing on even terms until Mandeville caught fire and threatened to run away with a 18-12 lead on Gomez’s kill.
With Alexander serving, the Lady Jackets closed to 19-15 and inched even closer at 22-21 with Claire Button serving.
Prest fed Mayo, who was blocked out of bounds, followed by kills from Faircloth and a solo block from Nassri, forcing Mandeville to call timeout.
Prest led DSHS with 24 assists and contributed four kills, while Dunham topped the Lady Jackets with nine kills. Faircloth and Mayo added eight apiece and Watson six.
The Lady Jackets were within 24-23 but served long, enabling the Lady Skippers to take a 2-1 lead.
“If we would have won that then, I think we could have finished off the entire thing strong,” Prest said. “But it didn’t fall in our favor.”
Mandeville took advantage of its hitting in the early stages of the final set for a 4-1 lead, a margin that steadily grew to 7-3 and eventually 17-7 after a five-point run that included a DSHS timeout to stop the home team’s momentum.
However, the Lady Jackets, who began the season 0-9 without Dubuy on the sideline after breast cancer surgery, simply ran out of steam and were unable to slow down the Lady Skippers’ array of hitters.
“We didn’t just let them run all over us,” Dubuy said. “I thought they did great, especially with the situation we’ve gone through this year.”