O’Connor volleyball opens with sweep of defending champs Brandeis

Aside from the fact they were playing last year’s state champions, there was no reason to think of O’Connor as an underdog in its season opener against rival Brandeis.

The Broncos also entered as the state’s preseason No. 1 team, according to the Texas Girls Coaches Association, while O’Connor was unranked.

Forget that, though.

O’Connor is one of the area’s most experienced teams, and it showed as the Panthers swept Brandeis 25-20, 25-18, 25-14 in a non-district contest Monday night at Northside Sports Gym.

Senior outside hitters Kelli Fording and Bella Guevara each had nine kills to lead the Panthers.

“Playing Brandies, our rival, was a big step for the tone,” said Fording, a fourth-year letterwinner who is committed to St. Edward’s. “Coming in as an underdog, we really wanted to prove our worth, and so we did that. The bar is really high this season.”

The Panthers played smoothly under the direction of setters Jenna Garza and Laney Blake. Libero Carly Chavez ensured the Panthers stayed in system with solid effort on defense.

“When you have a libero as good as Carly Chavez, she runs our back row, and communication is key,” Fording said. “I think our back row to front row connection is incredible, so no ball was dropping on our court.”

The Panthers welcomed a few new faces, but the team’s core remains the same from last year’s squad that went 33-11 and won District 29-6A for the second straight time with a 16-0 mark.

Brandeis’s Sophia Kuyn, left, defends Monday, Aug. 8, 2022 against a shot by O’Connor’s Kelli Fording during the Broncos’ game against the Panthers at the Northside Sports Gym.

William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff photographer

“I think this sets the tone very well for all of us,” Blake said. “As we grow as a team, especially for the first game, we did very well together. As we grow more together, we could have a lot of success in the future.”

Meanwhile, Brandeis still has some of its top-level talent, including senior outside hitter Emma Halstead, who was an Express-News Super Teamer in 2021. Halstead, a go-to force during last year’s state championship run, had 10 kills on Monday . Junior Sophia Kuyn added nine.

It was evident, though, the Broncos were missing setter/outside Carlee Pharris and outside hitter and 2021 Express-News Player of the Year Jalyn Gibson, who are both at TCU.

More matches will allow the Broncos’ talent to nurture as they prepare for another tough battle in District 28-6A, which includes a young and hungry Reagan squad.

In Monday’s first set, Panthers and Broncos traded the lead five times before O’Connor broke a 6-6 tie with a 6-1 run sparked with a pair of aces – one each from Fording and Chavez and a pair of kills from Guevara.

O’Connor kept that momentum going and took a 19-14 lead. Fording added two kills, including one on a splendid cross-court pass from Garza.

After winning the first, the Panthers emerged with fast starts to take the next two sets.

Brandeis's Grace Xu, left, and Sophia Kuyn go for a block during the Broncos' game against the O'Connor Panthers at the Northside Sports Gym.

Brandeis’s Grace Xu, left, and Sophia Kuyn go for a block during the Broncos’ game against the O’Connor Panthers at the Northside Sports Gym.

William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff photographer

O’Connor showed her prowess at the net with two blocks from junior Nevaeh Smith, including the second, which gave the Panthers a 23-13 lead in the second set.

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