Temple’s Amaya Benekin (1) and Khia Kirkwood try to block an attack by China Spring’s Dylan Birks in the Tem-Cats’ loss Tuesday night.

As the junior varsity match inside Wildcat Gym entered a decisive third set, the varsity Temple players began to peek through the thin, rectangular windows on the gym door leading to their freshly painted and sparkling home court.

The curiosity hinted toward some excitement and anxiousness as the long weeks and days leading up to the launch of a delayed season turned into just a few minutes. As the anticipation grew, the time for the Tem-Cats’ debut arrived Tuesday night. However, Class 4A China Spring — which has been at it since August — showed the polish of a team that has more than a dozen matches under its belt and picked up a 25-16, 25-7, 25-14 victory over Temple to remain undefeated.

Class 6A and 5A programs were permitted to start fall practices last Monday and regular-season matches this week, whereas 4A and below ushered in their new years in August — all part of a staggered start to fall sports implemented by the University Interscholastic League in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had some really good scrimmages last week and we played so much better than we did tonight. And I think that’s the disappointing part for me and the girls, just to come in and not get it done in the home opener,” Tem-Cats head coach JoAnna Vaden said. “We just have to dig deep and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Temple has two more chances this week to notch home victories, with matches against Waco on Friday and Waco University on Saturday.

But back to Tuesday, the Tem-Cats’ Ali Mack posted a team-high seven kills and two blocks, Abi Kinney chipped in four kills, and Amaya Benekin delivered 13 assists.

Catyn Wright paced the Lady Cougars (14-0) with 10 kills, Kadyne Emmot and Karley Baker had six kills apiece, and Dylan Birks and Hayli Case landed four each. Kayla Peoples recorded 15 assists and four service aces among China Spring’s 11 aces overall.

“Our serve-receive was way off. They are a hard-hitting team. I’m not taking anything away from them. They had some really good serves and we weren’t adjusting well,” Vaden added. “Ali Mack did a great job on the front line. Abi Kinney came through and had some good hits for us, and Amaya is working to get to the ball to set them up. We just didn’t function as a team like I’ve seen them function through the summer.”

Temple rallied at various times in each set. In Games 1 and 3, the Tem-Cats made things interesting in the middle portion. In Game 2, Temple kept it close early. In every instance, though, the Lady Cougars found ways to pull away.

China Spring sprinted to an 18-6 lead in the opening set, a deficit Temple whittled to 19-13 before the Lady Cougars closed with six of the next nine points.

The Tem-Cats were up 3-1 and 4-3 in Game 2 only to have China Spring rattle off runs of 7-0, 8-0 and 5-0 en route to a 2-0 match advantage.

And in the third, Temple clawed back from eight down to get within 14-10. But the Lady Cougars charged to the finish line with an 11-4 burst.

“I thought we played well. We are just trying to fix us and grow every day,” China Spring coach Melissa Cole said. “We start district next week and we are playing teams we don’t know anything about because they haven’t played yet. So, honestly, we are just trying to grow as a team and continue to improve.”