NEW HOPE — When the New Hope volleyball team learned it would be facing Lake Cormorant in Tuesday’s MHSAA Class 5A semifinal, the Trojans couldn’t help but think back to last year’s first-round playoff match, in which New Hope earned an exciting, tense five-set win to knock the Gators out of the postseason.
A year later, on the Gators’ return trip to New Hope, Trojans coach Allison Woolbright and her team were prepared to face an especially motivated Lake Cormorant team.
“We knew that they were coming with that in mind,” Woolbright said. “We knew that they wanted to put us out.”
But this time, the Trojans couldn’t stop it.
New Hope fought hard, winning the first and fourth sets. They started to mount a comeback in the decisive fifth. But it wasn’t enough. Lake Cormorant took the match in five sets — getting the revenge it had sought for just over a year — and floated out of the New Hope gym on a wave of happiness, bound for the state championship game.
Set scores were 23-25, 27-25, 25-22, 21-25 and 15-9 as the Trojans were eliminated in the semifinal round for the second straight season.
“We gave it our all,” Woolbright said. “That’s all we can ask for.”
New Hope certainly never gave up from the first point to the last, but a big deficit in the winner-take-all fifth set was enough to send Lake Cormorant on to Saturday’s Class 5A title match against Long Beach at Clinton High School. The Gators won the toss for the right to serve first — a pivotal moment, Woolbright said — and rattled off five straight points to stun the Trojans and the home crowd.
“OK, yeah, we’re going to take this thing,” Lake Cormorant senior outside hitter Alaijiah Rose said she and her teammates thought when New Hope called timeout trailing 5-0.
Rose, committed to Austin Peay, played the biggest part in making that happen. As the focal point of the Gators’ offense, she made life difficult for the Trojans all night, slamming home powerful kills or deftly tapping the ball toward an open spot when she saw New Hope blockers rising to meet her above the net.
She cleverly exposed the flaws in New Hope’s coverage, something in which the Trojans had excelled over the past few days of preparation, Woolbright said.
But “a couple of days or so of practice really isn’t enough when you’re at this level,” the coach pointed out.
The Trojans had seen this year’s version of Rose and the Gators before. At the Tupelo VolleyFest in September, Lake Cormorant handled New Hope 2-0, causing the Trojans to switch up their entire offensive scheme. It worked — until Tuesday, anyway.
That’s when the Gators were able to repay the Trojans in kind, something Rose said Lake Cormorant had waited to do all season.
“‘Oh, we’re ready for New Hope,'” Rose said the team felt at the start of the summer. “‘We’re going to come back, and we’re going to take it’ — and that’s what we did.”
In doing so, the Gators ended a New Hope campaign that was less of 2019’s “dream season” and more of a year in which the Trojans played how they should have, Woolbright said.
“I called last year’s season a ‘dream season’ because we really didn’t expect to be where we were,” she said. “This year, we had that expectation of, ‘This is where we wanted to be.’ That was our goal, and we just worked really hard to get here.”
Fighting through the COVID-19 pandemic was part of reaching the end of the line, Woolbright said. During the summer, she and the Trojans were unsure if they’d even get to play. A two-week delay and an attendance limit of two spectators per player altered things when they finally got to take the court.
But not a single game was canceled by either New Hope or its opponents, and Woolbright said she was proud that the Trojans made it all the way through.
“It was a dream season in many ways again,” she said.
But Tuesday night, the Trojans had to wake up. For New Hope’s four seniors — Daylyn Nettles, Micaela Hudgins, Ma’Kayla Johnson and Maci Coleman — the loss meant the end of their high school careers, though Nettles and Hudgins will go on to play in college.
“It’s always sad when your seniors play their last game,” Woolbright said.
She’ll send off a senior class that was instrumental in getting New Hope to the semifinals for the first time in school history last season and repeated the feat this fall. The Trojans wanted more, of course, but Woolbright knows the significance of that achievement.
“We were happy to just get to the final four, but at the same time, we didn’t want to just settle for that,” she said. “A lot of teams were not playing tonight, and so for us to be playing, I think that’s a great accomplishment to make it to the final four for 5A volleyball. I’m very proud of that.”
Still, she said, the loss was disappointing. Nearly every Trojan was in tears after the Gators’ final point. But Woolbright could tell that her players put their heart into it, and that was all she needed.
“We knew that they would be good,” she said of Lake Cormorant. “We knew that they would be tough. We did not give it to them. They had to walk into the gym and earn every point that they got. I’m proud of my girls for that.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.