(ALEX ABATE ~ Daily American Republic)
But the Wildcats never could surpass defending state champion Valle in a 25-13, 25-18 loss.
"At the beginning of the season, not very many people expected us to be here," Leopold coach Sandy Davis said. "They worked hard. They improved on a lot of things, and when you're in a situation like this with a bunch of girls who have not been in this situation, they're tense. They get nervous."
Leopold kept pace with Valle at the outset. Junior Dana Thiele and senior Emily Elfrink combined for a stuff to bring the Wildcats to within a point at 9-8 in Game 1, but the Warriors reeled off nine of the next 10 points to give themselves a big cushion.
The run was highlighted by three consecutive aces from Valle libero Katie Bader.
Bader used her jump serve to torture Leopold throughout the match. Even when Leopold snapped a streak, it did so by passing her serve over the net rather than to its setter.
"It's weird because last year I really couldn't serve at all," Bader said. "My coach kind of said, 'Do you want to serve?' I was like, 'I do,' so I had to work on it."
Bader changed everything about her serve.
"I floor served last year and that did not work for me, so this year I worked on jump serving and got it," she said.
Bader served first for Valle in Game 2 and quickly turned a 1-0 deficit into a 7-1 lead for her team, serving four consecutive aces at one point. That run was stopped when one of her teammates got in the net on defense.
"Usually we're a better serve-receive team than that," Davis said. "She was serving very aggressively, and I think after the few that she got the girls started tensing up.
"We just let them get too many in a row and didn't stop them."
Leopold scored the 10 of the next 14 points to even the score at 11-11.
The Wildcats' play at the net keyed the run. They ended points with blocks twice and influenced the outcome of several others.
"I always felt our blocking has been big," Davis said. "We started off not blocking well at all in the game, but once we started timing their hitters better, it makes all the difference in the world. It makes your defense better and it pumps you up when you're getting blocks against strong hitters."
The Valle offense includes three players with more than 100 kills this season and six with more than 50, meaning strong hitters are all over the court.
"That shows what kind of character girls they are," Davis said. "They didn't ever give up. What was it 9-1 or 7-1, something like that? They never gave up. They started rolling and playing aggressively and getting passing. That says a lot about them."
Valle reeled off five consecutive points, including another ace, after Leopold tied Game 2.
"I thought we would always start slow," Leopold sophomore Denai Arnzen said. "But then we would get pumped back up, and it was always too late to come back."
Leopold would not get closer than four points again.
"I don't want to change any of it," Leopold senior Ashley Keim said. "I couldn't change it for the world. We definitely could have had better defense. We could have had better hitting. Everything could have been better, but everybody played hard and they played their hearts out. I honestly couldn't ask for a better last game."
The Wildcats defeated South Pemiscot 25-20, 25-20 earlier in the day in the sectional round.
Five starters will return to the team, which got a firsthand look at how a state championship team plays.
"I would definitely rather play a good team," Leopold freshman Caitlin Petty said. "Not that any of the people in the whole sectionals aren't good, but they're a really good team and they won state last year.
"It's just a lot of fun, and you get to experience more and learn a lot by playing better teams."
The Wildcats finished the season 19-12.
"I think they learned a lot about what we have to build on now," Davis said. "With this group of girls, they'll do it. They'll want to get better. They'll want to try to take it to the next level, and that's what it takes."