. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Bailey Pearce goes high for a kill during the District 4-AAAAA Tournament championship Nov. 4 at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Teams don’t reach the “final four” by accident, and Artesia fully expected a battle in Friday’s Class 5A state semifinal match against Los Lunas.

No one, however, expected the outcome.

That the No. 3 Tigers defeated the No. 2 Bulldogs was a minor upset on paper. That they did it in three straight games was a major shock. On an evening when the girls in orange just seemed out of sync in all phases of the game, Los Lunas took advantage of every little chink in the ‘Dogs’ armor. And the result for Artesia was a 3-0 elimination, 29-31, 15-25, 18-25.

“I just don’t think we ever recovered from that first game,” head coach Alan Williams said Saturday. “When you have as big a lead as we did in that important of a game, you have to finish it, and we let them get back in it and take the momentum.

“So from then on, we spent the rest of the match trying to get over that.”

For the majority of the opening game Friday, it looked as though the Bulldogs had things well in hand.

A six-point service by Alexa Riggs in the early stages — kept going by kills from Mattie McCombs and Bailey Pearce — put Artesia out front 8-2, and with continued solid hitting from McCombs and Pearce, and three from the line by Stacia Martinez, the ‘Dogs found themselves six points away from the win, 19-12.

A trio of defensive miscues and two off-the-mark hits in the Tigers’ next possession, however, proved to be the beginning of the end for Artesia. The rash of errors allowed Los Lunas to tie the bout, and although kills from Pearce and Martinez helped pull the Bulldogs back ahead and bring about game point, 24-23, the Tigers had smelled blood.

A spike into open court returned the ball to Los Lunas and kicked off a marathon run into extra points. Pearce was able to twice swat home a side-out to give the ball back to Artesia and Martinez once, but the ‘Dogs could get nothing going from service. One into the net ended their final attempt, and the Tigers were able to close out the win, 31-29.

Gracie Puentes sends a shot over the net. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Momentum in rally-point volleyball is a precious commodity, and once Los Lunas had it, they didn’t let it go.

With the Bulldogs’ serve-receive game struggling to provide the clean passes needed to make Artesia’s powerful hitting a factor, the Tigers continued to be opportunistic. Los Lunas took the ‘Dogs’ rash of hits out of bounds or into the net as they came and tacked on additional points with their own solid offensive play in between.

The second set was a frustrating affair all around for the girls in orange, who couldn’t put more than one service point at a time together, battling instead through side-outs that allowed the Tigers to chip their way to a 25-15 win.

Down to their final chance, the ‘Dogs got off to a better start in Game Three, ending Los Lunas’ opening service with a Martinez kill, then going up 2-0 on a successful serve by the senior. The next ball sailed into the net, however, and once again, the side-out exchange was on.

With help from Pearce, McCombs, Gracie Puentes and Malori McSpadden kills, Artesia was able to stay in front through the midway point, 12-10. Errors, however, extended the Tigers’ next three services and allowed them to string together the points the Bulldogs could not.

The result was a quick turn of the tables, 15-21, and Los Lunas coasted from there to the 25-18 match-winner.

“We played a little better in that third game, but we still just weren’t at our best, and that had a lot to do with Los Lunas,” said Williams. “They really served us tough, and our passing struggled with that. We just always seemed to be out of system and we weren’t able to run our offense, so they did a good job.”

Artesia finished with 28 total unforced errors on the semifinal, an uncharacteristic amount indeed for a team typically able to overcome any brief lapses. Pearce delivered 10 kills over the course of the match, followed by McCombs and Martinez with five each, and Riggs had eight points from service to lead an overall low tally of 22.

With the loss, the Bulldogs closed out their 2017 campaign with a record of 20-3.

“Like I told the girls after the game, it didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but it’s more about the whole season than it is one game,” Williams said. “Everybody wants to end with a championship, but there’s a lot more to a volleyball season than that.

“We had a lot of success throughout the season, a lot of time spent together, relationships built, memories made, and those kinds of things are going to be a lot more important in the long run.”

Artesia will suffer some key losses to graduation in the spring, saying goodbye to seven seniors: Riggs, McCombs, Martinez, Puentes, Pearce, Kacey Thurman and Brile Ybarra.

Their departure will be felt, but with a talented group of returning underclassmen on their roster, the Bulldogs will be looking to make another run in 2018.

“Several of those seniors have played on the varsity for at least three years, a couple of them for four,” said Williams. “There’s been a lot of wins from all of them, a lot of great memories. That class is a wonderful group of kids who are successful not only on the volleyball court but in basketball, softball and other sports, and they’re also successful in the classroom. They’re good leaders and good kids, and we’re really going to miss them. We enjoyed the years we had with them, and they’ve been a blessing.

“We also had a great crowd up in Rio Rancho, and we appreciate the support we had all year. It’s too bad the score didn’t depend on the crowd, because we definitely had a bigger one than Los Lunas, and they’re just down the street. It just goes to show you how Bulldogs are supported. We’ve got a lot of kids coming back next year, a lot who could have started if it wasn’t for the fact there were seniors ahead of them, so hopefully they’ll fit right in and we’ll have another good year.”