A young Tompkins team proved to be a pesky challenge for District 20-6A champion Ridge Point, capitalizing on Panthers errors to win a thrilling first set, but the Falcons were eventually overwhelmed by the size of the favorites in a 3-1 loss Tuesday, Nov. 5, in their Class 6A bi-district playoff game at the Merrell Center.

After losing the first set 30-28, Ridge Point (41-4) re-established control with three straight wins, 25-18, 25-19, 25-13. But the Panthers struggled with consistency throughout the night as a rugged Tompkins squad continually fought back.

That opening set was one of the most exciting of area volleyball this year, as Tompkins trailed 19-12 late and fought off three set points during its comeback. Tompkins coach Allison Merrell said her team didn’t panic despite the situation.

“I told them to have fun,” she said. “We game-planned well and we knew the opponent very, very well, and we knew what they were capable of doing. We were relaxed.”

It was youth leading the way for the Falcons during the comeback, as sophomore Paris Herrman and freshman Tendai Titley had a pair of kills. However, a pair of errors led to a 23-19 deficit for the Falcons.

At that point, Tompkins freshman Cindy Tchouangwa took over for the Falcons. She earned the next two points on blocks at the net. Ridge Point managed to get to set point, 24-21, after a kill by senior Claire Jeter, a Texas A&M recruit.

Facing the potential of a first set loss, Tchouangwa struck again with two more spikes at the net for kills, and the score was knotted 24-24 after a Ridge Point error. The Panthers never regained the lead in the set, as instead it took the Falcons five set points to finally get a 30-28 victory on an ace by Herrman.

However, while Tompkins played well in the second and third sets, Merrell said the Panthers’ size upfront was too much for them. Jeter finished with 18 kills, and her fellow senior Reagan Rutherford—committed to play at the University of Kentucky—had a team-high 19 kills.

The Panthers also had their own freshman spark plug in outside hitter Sydney Jordan. She had seven kills, all of which came during the middle of sets to repel Tompkins’ rallies.

As a result, the Falcons struggled to handle the attack and to effectively counterattack. Tchouangwa and Herrman had five kills each in the first set. They had 11 kills combined in the next three sets as the Panthers tightened up their own defense.

Junior Eliana Posada led the Falcons with 12 kills, mostly from tips and striking from different angles.

“They’re a huge blocking team, and if we’re out of system at all, we struggled with what to do with the ball,” Merrell said. “In system, we knew what the game plan was, and they fought hard and played well.”

While the loss ended her team’s season at 25-17 overall, Merrell also seemed to be channeling the famous quote from college basketball coach and commentator Al McGuire: “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” Every player that had a kill, block or ace on Tuesday night for the Falcons returns for the 2020 season.

“I’ve got four freshmen and a bunch of sophomores,” Merrell said. “It’s a growing experience for them, and we were definitely the underdogs coming in. I’m proud of them.”