Several Tatum Lady Eagles got their first postseason experience Tuesday night against a never-say-die West Rusk team.
One Lady Eagle, however, had been there before.
Essence Allen turned in an all-around performance as a youthful Tatum squad opened the Class 3A playoffs with a Region II bi-district sweep over West Rusk (25-19, 25-20, 25-19) at Pine Tree’s Pirate Center.
With the win, Tatum, winners of 16-straight, advances to the area round for the second-straight year and will face a familiar opponent in Mount Vernon at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Ore City.
Each set Tuesday featured late ties, long rallies and big swings in front of a spirited crowd on both sides.
West Rusk, who concludes its season at 28-14, limited Allen early and that’s when the Lady Eagle youth, including four freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors, stepped up in a big way.
“I thought they might be a little nervous coming in here but they weren’t,” Tatum head coach Leven Barker, in his second season with the Lady Eagles, said. “West Rusk did some stuff to stop our number one early and they did a good job at that.
“Essence adjusted to it and everyone did too as the match went on. You can try but it doesn’t happen very often. She never got down, that’s what I saw in her. She just kept playing and towards the end, she was was unstoppable like we know her to be.”
Allen finished with a match-high 17 kills to go with 21 digs and four blocks. Allen had an early kill in the first set but, after a 13-13 tie, rallied for four more. She added five more in the second set and closed with seven in the third.
“She’s been a great leader,” Barker said. “Our younger kids played hard tonight because they want to play hard for her. It’s a team game, we’re not about one girl and Essence will tell you that too. We saw that tonight. Those young ones, early in the match, man, they were hammering the ball.
“To be as young as we are and to come in here in this atmosphere and to play at that speed we just played at ... kudos to our team.”
Junior Kayla Jones followed with seven kills and a match-high six blocks in a strong night at the net. Freshman Kaylei Stroud followed with six kills, 10 digs and an ace. Sophomore Summer Dancy-Vasquez had 11 digs.
Freshman Abby Sorenson connected it all with 29 assists to go with six digs and three aces, matching sophomore McKensi Greenwood at the service stripe.
For West Rusk, the duo of Hannah Trichel and Kate Hooser combined for 17 kills for the Lady Raiders.
Alexandria Lewis had six kills and Kayla Lewis added three. Junior Kaylee Driver finished with 15 assists and the Lady Raiders got solid nights defensively from Natalie Farrow, Chloee Tidwell and Kodi Robertson.
Runs highlighted the opening set with ties at 3-all, 8-all and 13-all. With Stroud at the line, Tatum then rallied off six-straight, including three kills from Allen.
The Lady Raider fight never died from there to pull back to within three, 20-17, highlighted by a solo kill from Trichel. Errors then put Tatum back in front before Sorenson found Jones for the 25-19 win.
It was much of the same in the second with West Rusk jumped to an 8-4 lead. Tatum rallied to a slim 17-16 lead before an 8-0 run with Greenwood at the line and kills from Jones and Stroud upped it to 24-16 on the way to the 25-20 win.
Allen got to swinging early in the third as Tatum raced to an 8-3 lead. West Rusk chipped that away to a 13-all tie before it was Sorenson’s turn again at the line.
An ace from Trichel pulled West Rusk to within two before a closing 4-0 run from Tatum, punctuated with an Allen Kill, completed the sweep.
Next up for Tatum is a rematch from 2018’s area around against Mount Vernon, who took a 3-1 win a year ago. The Lady Tigers battled past Redwater (25-23, 25-19, 26-24) on Monday.
“They’re very talented,” Barker said of Mount Vernon. “The coaches daughter is back and had an amazing match against us last year. We’ve got to figure out a way to slow them down.
“We’ve got to be ready for a battle.”