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(Courtesy Photo)

There was essentially nothing left the Artesia Bulldogs and Goddard Rockets could do to surprise one another Saturday in Roswell.

The two teams took the court at Ground Zero for the District 4-AAAA Tournament championship having already squared off five times this year. And that familiarity had come to breed plenty of contempt for the girls in orange, as, after defeating the Rockets in the teams’ first three meetings, they fell in two of the ones that mattered: their second-round regular-season district match and the tie-breaker it forced.

Artesia’s loss in the latter gave Goddard the regular-season district title, but the ‘Dogs had one last shot to right the ship in the D4 Tournament.

They took a difficult route there, needing five games to knock off Portales Thursday at Bulldog Pit, and their quest for a crown of their own would have to go through Goddard’s home court, as well.

But as if the teams’ last two encounters had never even happened, the Artesia girls rose coolly to the challenge Saturday, defeating the Rockets in three straight sets, 25-21, 26-24, 25-21.

“This was a good game for us to go into state with,” head coach Alan Williams said following the match. “It’s tough to play a team six times. We beat them three times and lost two, but then having to play the most important game of our regular season at their place coming off of those two losses could have been intimidating.

“But I don’t think the girls were ever fazed by it. They played really well.”

Artesia spotted the girls in blue an early lead in the first two games of the night Saturday.

They were able to overcome a few glitches to take the opener but once again tumbled into a significant hole in the second set, finding themselves down 14-5 to the Rockets midway through.

The ‘Dogs needed a spark, and senior Kersie Beltran provided it, stepping to the service line and delivering seven consecutive points, aided by an ace, a Payton Chandler kill, and a Paityn Houghtaling block.

That brought Artesia back within striking distance, and three more from the line a few points later by Kyrah Gonzales tied the contest at 20-all.

Goddard was able to battle their way to game point, 24-22, but a Dezaray Boyce kill returned the ball to the Bulldogs, and from there, Malori McSpadden would serve out, with Houghtaling having a hand on each of the three final points.

Both teams struggled to find their rhythm in the early goings of Game Three, but McSpadden was able to give the ‘Dogs a leg up with a trio of service points, including an ace, a Houghtaling set-over, and a Boyce kill.

As the teams fought to string together any significant run, the Rockets were able to hang around within six or seven points of the girls in orange, which were nearly made up en masse in the latter stages, thanks to a string of defensive miscues by the Bulldogs.

Goddard’s four-point run made it 23-21 but would end on a serve out of bounds, and with match point at hand, Gonzales launched an ace to give Artesia the win and the tournament title.

“I thought we served the ball really well,” Williams said. “We had a few service errors, especially in that third game, but for the most part, they struggled to pass our serves.
“We were also really confident with our hitting. I was proud of the girls’ aggressiveness when it came to offense tonight.”

Houghtaling led the squad with 10 kills on the night, while McSpadden delivered six aces and Kaylee Wagner three blocks. Gonzales finished with 10 assists, and Sadie Ramirez posted 17 digs.

“We were kind of fortunate because in our last two games, we’ve been officiated by a guy who calls the game really tight,” said Williams. “I think that’s going to be to our advantage, because it’s always a big change when we go to state. The officiating is a lot different there, and sometimes that can rattle us.”

The Artesia girls were seeded third in the Class 4A state playoffs and will begin pool play Thursday. Visit www.nmact.org to view the state volleyball brackets and pool play schedules.

“Goddard is our regular-season district champion, but then we beat them in the tournament and beat them four times out of six overall,” said the coach. “So for the season, that’s six wins we have over district champions.

“Hope is highly-ranked, but they lost tonight to Albuquerque Academy, so I really don’t think there’s one team that’s just dominant this year. The seeding isn’t going to matter a whole lot, especially with volleyball having pool play, so wherever we land, we’re going to be alright. We’re going to spend these last few practices trying to get a lot of reps in and having some fun, and then take our long trip to state and see how it goes.”