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Things didn’t start out well for the Bulldog volleyball team Thursday at the Class 4A State Tournament in Rio Rancho.

The highest seed in their three-team pool, the Artesia girls weren’t able to put away either of their opponents – Albuquerque Academy and Pojoaque – splitting matches and being forced to watch as the bracketing came down to point differential.

Technically, the girls in orange came out on the short end of the stick there, finishing third.

But although that prevented them from earning a bye through the first round of play, their path toward the state-championship match took a rather favorable turn. They’d be paired in Thursday evening’s first round with overall No. 8 Santa Teresa. And a win would advance them to face the overall No. 11 in the quarterfinals: Espanola Valley.

The girls in orange had long had a habit of struggling in pool play, then coming out gangbusters once the brackets began, so optimism was high as they took the court against the Desert Warriors. But sometimes on the big stage, where any team can have its day, it just doesn’t click. And so it was for the Bulldogs.

Artesia fell in their opening game against Santa Teresa, 23-25, and despite battling back to tie the match with a 29-27 victory in Game Two, they’d drop the third and fourth sets to end their 2018 season, 23-25 and 17-25.

“We just didn’t play very well,” head coach Alan Williams said Saturday. “We had a lot of errors, especially with our hitting. Santa Teresa had two hitters, and defensively, we couldn’t seem to make adjustments to stop them.

“We just didn’t play our best when it counted.”

To prove the “any given day” theory, the tournament’s other top-three teams – No. 1 St. Pius and No. 2 Hope Christian – were also eliminated prior to the title tilt, which featured fourth-ranked Goddard and No. 9 Los Lunas. The Tigers earned the upset and their second consecutive blue trophy with a five-game win, 16-25, 25-13, 12-25, 25-16, 15-13.

But although the season didn’t end as the Bulldogs and their coaches would have hoped, Williams is proud of his athletes’ efforts over the course of the campaign, which saw them finish 18-6 overall and with a District 4-AAAA Tournament championship to boot.

“There were a lot of good things that went on during the season,” said the coach. “The girls had fun, they played hard. We won the Zia Classic, which was nice. All season long, it felt like we’d be a contender, but it just didn’t go our way up there. We couldn’t find ourselves.”

The ‘Dogs will bid farewell this season to six key seniors in Paityn Houghtaling, Malori McSpadden, Dezaray Boyce, Kyrah Gonzales, Payton Chandler and Kersie Beltran, some of whom have been with the program for four years.

“There are some really good leaders in that bunch,” Williams said, “some of the best leaders we’ve ever had. They’re just really good kids, and we’ve enjoyed them. Several of them have been with us for several years, but even the ones that played on varsity for the first time this year played big roles and played well.

“It was really an honor to be able to work with them and develop relationships with them.”

The losses will be felt, but Artesia will have a solid core returning in 2019, comprised of three juniors and three sophomores, most of whom saw significant playing time this season.

“We have a lot of good players coming back,” said Williams. “Portales is really young, Goddard has a lot of players coming back, so I think it’ll be the three of us battling again, and if there’s one thing to take from this season, it’s that you can be a dark horse and win it all. You just never know, so you have to keep getting better and show up when it counts.”

The Bulldogs will hold their end-of-season banquet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Artesia Public Schools Administration Building.

“We appreciate all the support we received this year, especially from our cheerleaders,” said Williams. “They were our biggest fans, and they really did a lot for us. We also had a lot of good parents who put in countless hours to make this season special for the girls.”