A special season for the Starkville High volleyball team came to a rather unceremonious conclusion Saturday.
Hosting Hernando in the opening round of the Class 2 playoffs at Mississippi State's Newell-Grissom Building, the Lady Yellowjackets fell in straight sets (25-8, 25-8, 25-20).
It was a less-than-stellar final act for a Starkville squad that had performed so well all year long, going unbeaten in district play, capturing the Region 2 championship and ending the year with a final overall record of 19-11.
Despite the sour ending, there was no way SHS head coach Lauren Love could dismiss all her team accomplished this year.
"We're still very proud of the girls and their efforts," said Love. "We weren't sure what to expect when we started this season, but I think we can confidently say that we exceeded expectations."
Unfortunately for Starkville, the Lady Jackets will no longer have the opportunity to continue their overachieving ways thanks to an impressive showing from Hernando.
The Region 1 runner-up Lady Tigers (10-14) dominated the first two sets of the match, leaving SHS scrambling to recover.
"We broke down in communication and we had a mindset that we were scared," said Starkville senior Wheeler Richardson. "We didn't know what to do. We didn't pass, we hit a lot of balls into the net and just made more mistakes. At some point, it was a loss of confidence. It was just a breakdown of everything."
Hernando took SHS out of the first two sets early.
In the first set, the Lady Tigers scored nine of the frame's initial 11 points.
A set later, Hernando broke away to an even bigger advantage, surging ahead 16-1.
Love said her Lady Jackets simply weren't performing up to the expectations they had originally set for themselves.
"At the beginning of the season, we talked about what we wanted to be as a team and what we wanted to stand for and it was aggressive, defensive and together," said Love. "We had the defensive part going, but we just didn't have that aggressiveness or togetherness. We didn't have it at the level we needed it to get a win."
After falling down two sets to none, Starkville nearly battled its way back into the match with an impressive showing in the third set.
While the Lady Jackets fell behind once again 18-13, Starkville rallied to tie the set at 20-20.
Richardson played a key role in the SHS surge, taking a more aggressive approach as she fought to extend her high school volleyball career.
"We were kind of timid and started tipping," said Richardson. "At some point, I was just kind of like, if no one else is going to hit the ball, I'll hit it."
Richardson finished the match with nine assists, four kills, four digs and a pair of aces.
Richardson's senior classmates Grace Drumheller and Margaret Allison compiled a total of 20 digs -â€“ 11 for Drumheller and nine for Allison.
Khristian Carr recorded eight digs and five kills while Michaela Mills had three kills and three digs for Starkville.
Yet it wasn't enough as Hernando scored the final five points of the third set to clinch the win.
Still, Richardson said she finds comfort in seeing how her team fought until the end.
"To know that they wanted it enough to come back and play like I know they can play is really encouraging," said Richardson. "I'm sad that we lost, but it's good that we played the way we did in the third set."
Hernando's win sends the Lady Tigers to the North State finals on Oct. 11 where it will face either Lake Cormorant or Callaway.
Though Love saw her team's season wrap up with a first-round playoff exit, she had to tip her hat to Hernando.
"This season, we didn't face as many hitters or situations like we saw (Saturday)," said Love. "You can practice it, but unless you're in those match situations where you're facing those kinds of hits and those kinds of hitters, it's hard to practice and really get that level of defense and blocking where you need it to be."
With the season now over, Starkville will now regroup and prepare for 2012. In the meanwhile, Love says the Lady Jackets will reflect fondly on 2011.
"We're just so appreciative of everyone from the administration, to the families, to the girls and all the people that had a lot to do with the success of this season," said Love. "Even the community, letting us use the (Starkville Sportsplex).
"Coach (Diana) Wileman and I are just so proud."