Eagles mature when their head and tail feathers turn white. The white plumage is a sign of full maturity, and it usually takes up to five years before their feathers turn white. On Thursday evening in Hackett, a young Lady Eagles team got off the bus and went inside the Hackett gymnasium knowing that they were facing a test against defending state champions, and the time for maturity had arrived. The young Lady Eagles did not have five years to mature. Last night was the night, and Paris was going to find out a lot about their character as a team and how they would hold up away from home in a hostile environment against one of the best volleyball teams in the state. When the night was over, the Lady Eagles were no longer the young Lady Eagles; they earned their feathers Thursday night in a hard-fought, epic clash with the Hackett Lady Hornets.
Paris and Hackett entered Thursday night’s contest atop the standings in the 3A West. Neither team had lost a set in conference play prior to Thursday night. It was a battle of two forces in which something had to give. And for the lucky fans who were able to attend, the two teams played their hearts out and the fans were treated to a memorable clash between two of the better programs in the state. The match exceeded the highest expectations for a contest that had already received a significant amount of pregame publicity and chatter among fans of both schools.
One of the question marks for Paris going into the match-up was how would its young front line hold up to the veteran, hard-hitting front line of Hackett. The Lady Eagles answered the call as the Paris front line came alive and kept Hackett off guard for most of the night. Both teams were swinging and hitting the ball hard, and both teams had to be on their toes defensively because no matter how hard each front line would attempt to kill a shot, the receiving team would seemingly always return the ball. There was never time to celebrate the anticipation of a kill shot. Both teams contested every shot, and both teams made spectacular digs, sets, and spikes. I don’t know off hand what other matches were being played around the state, but surely none could have been better than the one that was played in Hackett on Thursday evening.
Hackett started the first set quickly, jumping out to an early five point lead. Paris clawed their way back into the match and eventually took control with their front line. Paris went on to win the first set, 25-20. The second set saw Paris take control early and eventually getting to 20 points and looking to win the second set and put Hackett in the position of having to win three straight sets to win the match. But the never-say-die Hackett Lady Hornets, coached and developed in the image of their highly-competitive coach, Bridget Freeman, fought their way back and won the second set 25-20. Hackett evened the match and had momentum on their side. As with the first and second sets, the two teams split the third and fourth sets by the same score of 25-23. The stage was then set for the dramatic fifth set tie-breaker for the match.
The fifth set saw Paris jump out to an early lead. And one final time, the Lady Hornets fought their way back, closing a deficit to eventually tie the fifth set at 15-15. Paris went on to win the deciding set, 17-15. When it was over, there was high emotion on both sides, but the celebration on one side, and the dejection on the other side was not like a state playoff game. Both sides know their is a lot of volleyball left to be played, including a return match between the two teams in Paris on October 6. To the fans, it was sad to see the great match come to an end, and for the players, it was hard to see someone lose the game. Both teams played hard, but the Lady Eagles were able to prevail and vault themselves into the lead in the 3A West with the win.
The Paris victory Thursday night was a total team victory for the Lady Eagles. Every player on the floor played a great game. Every player gave great effort, and those who did not play cheered their teammates on and encouraged them on every point. There was no one single player who stood out. It was a treat to watch two great teams compete. After the game, I spoke with an excited Paris coach, Jordan Devine. “They showed some grit that we haven’t necessarily seen, so that was really nice. Just showed what we can do! We’re getting blocks, or we’re flying around on defense…you just can’t be any happier. It was no one person. Looking at our stats, I mean, it was everybody. Which is what we want, right?” I asked Coach Devine where the intensity of the Lady Eagles came from Thursday night, and she said, “When you press their buttons and talk about somebody else all the time, its going to push their buttons a little bit and they are going to come after you. There are things we are going to take away that we can work on. We were ahead in every set, and we have just got to learn how to finish.”
Ironically, for Paris, the team has displayed a low-key demeanor all season prior to the Hackett match. Although they were undefeated in conference play, Paris was seemingly winning on talent as they were having to develop chemistry as a team. And that’s what they have done. Since the start of the season on August 24, the team has become closer and stronger as they have continued to play together after the shortened summer practice time. We knew this team was talented, but they lacked experience on the varsity level and playing together as teammates. Now, approximately three weeks into the season, you can see the team coming together. And you can also see that this team has a high ceiling. They are only going to get better over the rest of this season and into next. Yes, for the Lady Eagles, the sky is truly the limit.
There were many implications for this game; some obvious and some not so obvious. First, the game was for the lead in the conference. For now, Paris moves into first place ahead of Hackett. The two teams will resume conference play and will face each other in Paris again on October 6. Secondly, both teams are expected to make the state tournament. However, in this strange year of high school athletics that is being held hostage by the COVID virus, it is still not known if the district tournament will be held at the end of the regular season. Normally, teams play during the regular season for district tournament seedings. A high seeding in the district tournament gives a team a more advantageous draw in the tournament, and subsequently gives the team a better chance at a higher seed in the state tournament. This year, if the district tournament is not held, then the state tournament births and seedings would be determined by the regular season order of finish. Now, in the background of all of this is Little Rock Episcopal, last year’s Class 3A champion. Episcopal will host this year’s state volleyball tournament, and will likely enter the state tournament as a one seed. So, for schools in the 3A West conference, a low seed from conference play increases the chances of facing Episcopal on their home floor in an earlier round of the state tournament. Undoubtedly, Hackett will be focused on winning the rematch in Paris and forcing a tie between the two schools with the tie-breaker used to determine the number one and the number two seeds in the conference for post-season play.
But before any of that is considered, both teams face the critical task of coming off the adrenaline and the fatigue of this game and quickly refocusing on the next conference opponent. Neither school wants to drop a conference game that they should be very competitive in after the last night’s war for first place. For Paris, that means that the Lady Eagles return to the road again on Monday to face a good Waldron team that is capable of beating you if you are not ready to play. Thursday night’s win is no good for Paris if they walk into the Waldron Special Events Center and drop a game to the Lady Bulldogs because they were not focused or still celebrating Thursday’s win. This will be the next step of maturity for this team.
For Hackett, they will turn their attention to Booneville on Monday night. Hackett should be in good shape against Booneville, but the Lady Hornets have to remember that not long ago the Lady Bearcats pushed Paris in their third set in Booneville. Paris still won the match 3-0, but it was the first time prior to last night that Paris had been threatened in a conference match. Thursday’s loss was a tough loss for a Hackett program that is not used to losing, but Coach Freeman will have her girls ready to play. They have to shake the disappointment and the let down from the loss and get ready to play Booneville on Monday night. Hackett has no room for an upset loss; such a loss would be devastating to their season and to their seeding in the Class 3A state tournament. The Lady Hornets are last year’s Class 2A champions, and they are more than capable of contending in the Class 3A tournament. But they will have to shake off this loss and develop a short memory. They must put this loss behind them quickly and move on to Monday’s match with Booneville.
It seems that more often than not, when a big game receives a lot of attention and has fans looking forward to it, the game turns out to be a disappointment. That was not the case Thursday night in Hackett as two great programs met in a head-to-head match for first place in the 3A West. And when it was all over, it was the Lady Eagles flying high back to Paris.
Hang on volleyball fans…the second half of this season should be even better than the first! And Resident Press will be there to bring you all of the action!