CASPER – Lisa Gilbert had a hard time coming up with the right words.
She couldn’t help but fight back tears.
This wasn’t how she imagined her coaching career would end.
But the Pine Bluffs coach of 18 years stood outside the locker room at Casper Events Center moments after her team dropped a 25-17, 13-25, 22-25, 25-15, 8-15 loss to Wright in a Class 2A state tournament consolation semifinal Saturday afternoon.
“A little, a little. I mean, I’m ready,” Gilbert said when asked if it had sunk in yet that that was the last match of her career. “I’m exhausted.”
The No. 1-ranked Lady Hornets (28-5) cruised through the first set. They buzzed out to a 13-7 lead before Wright called a timeout. Senior middle blocker Dylan Sweeter closed out the first set with one of her five blocks on the day to give her club a 1-0 lead in the match.
Back came the Lady Panthers, who evened the match with a dominating second frame. They sprinted out to a 6-1 lead before the Hornets tied it, 7-7, and regained the lead before building a 16-8 advantage.
Doubt began to creep into the minds of the Hornets, who dropped a much closer third set and trailed 2-1 in the match.
“After our loss on Thursday, it was extremely hard to bounce back from a loss like that, because we really wanted to win state this year,” Pine Bluffs senior Sophie Howard said. “We’d get into a specific rotation and we just can’t get out of it because we get down on ourselves, and it’s extremely hard to bounce back from that.”
Howard, who played with a hyperextended left elbow all weekend, was less than 100%. Despite her injury, she finished with a team-best 17 kills against Wright to go along with eight blocks and 14 digs.
“It was really difficult,” Howard said of her injury. “I wish my elbow would’ve healed faster. We were all playing it safe on Thursday because we didn’t want to lose, and that was a big mistake because you have to take risks (in) this game.”
Pine Bluffs climbed back to even the match at two sets a piece to force a fifth and decisive set. The Hornets held a 7-5 lead, but the Panthers stole the momentum and never looked back. First, they took a 10-8 lead following a kill from senior Payton Vrbas. Then, they won the match.
“We just couldn’t climb the mental part of it,” Gilbert said. “That’s what we fought. Our losses have all been mental, not because … Wright’s a good team, but I feel we are the better team. We beat ourselves is what happens.”
As Gilbert stood in the hallway, she thought of the impact she would leave on the Hornets’ program. She thought of the legacy she would leave behind.
She fought back more tears.
“I hope they don’t place too much emphasis on winning and losing,” she said. “But I hope they remember that they are champions, regardless, and they’re good kids. And things don’t always work out how you want them to. That’s the way it is.
“I hope I made an impact like (the way) they impacted my life.”