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O'Connor Volleyball looks to take the next step at UIL State Tournament

Panthers return to state with their eyes on a state title

HELOTES, Texas – When junior Kali Nelson blocked the last shot of the Class 6A Region IV Regional Final and capped a last-second comeback against the top-seeded Clark Cougars, the O'Connor Panthers stormed the court at the Alamo Convocation Center and celebrated their second straight, and second-ever, berth in the UIL State Tournament.

"I think we're still, not in shock, but really proud of ourselves and how hard we worked to get to this point again," said senior middle blocker and outside hitter Gabby De Los Santos. "It's almost impossible to get to state two years in a row."

"It was just an indescribable feeling beating Clark in five sets," senior defensive specialist Jordan Schenkel explained. "I think it just shows the willpower of this team, showing how much we wanted to go to state two years in a row. That's something no one could have predicted or expected of us. A lot of the girls, especially the first-time varsity players, are still riding on that high."

Now the focus shifts toward taking that next step as a team and a program, and that means winning a match at the state level. Last season, O'Connor's first-ever trip to the state semifinals was short-lived, as the Panthers fell in four sets to Katy Seven Lakes. Even though it was fleeting, that experience will serve O'Connor well in their second trip.

"I think it helps our mentality knowing what we're going into," De Los Santos said. "Now that we've already done it, I think we're already prepared more than last year."

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"We know what to expect," said Schenkel. "I think a lot of our returning varsity players are ready for it. We may have set history last year, but I think going to state this year and moving past what we did last year will just reset this program's history all over again."

This season, the Panthers will face Lewisville Flower Mound in the semis, a team that finished the regular season with a 41-7 overall record, the second best mark of the four remaining teams. But O'Connor has been battle tested this postseason, pulling out tough matches against their District 28-6A rivals Clark and Brandeis, and they've noticed some similarities to those two opponents in Flower Mound's game.

"They have a lot of height. They're basically the same size as Clark, and I know they run a lot of crosses and x's like Brandeis," explained Schenkel. "It'll be like facing Clark and Brandeis put together. I think we can do it if our mind is in the right spot and if our defense really pursues like we did against Clark."

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"I know that they have height, but that hasn't stopped us before," De Los Santos said. "We just want to work together, use our volleyball IQ and hit smarter shots to get over those blocks. I think that we can push through it, and if we can take this first match, being in the state championship game would be an honor."

Regardless of results, the Panthers once again enter the Curtis Culwell Center as program trailblazers, and the memories they will make this week, both individually and as a team, will certainly last.

"I'm just looking forward to bonding with my teammates on the six-hour car ride up to Garland," Schenkel said. "This is our last time playing together. I'm a senior and I do cherish a lot of my friendships with the underclassmen. Just the memories of going to state are amazing, but winning I think would be one of the moments that I would cherish for the rest of my life."

The state semifinal match between O'Connor and Flower Mound will take place this Friday night at 7 p.m.

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