Strong start: New-look Fair Grove tops Clever in opener

Every team has its own unique story, but you can’t help but make a roster-turnover analogy between Fair Grove’s 2016 and 2013 volleyball teams.

The 2013 squad entered a new season – after going 32-6 and winning a district title – having graduated a strong three-player senior class that included all-state middle hitter Morgan Kensinger, who has become a four-year starter for Evangel. The Eagles, led by stable veteran leadership, surprised many by making a final four run that season.

PHOTOS: CLEVER VS. FAIR GROVE

Three years later, the 2016 Eagles are looking to replace four-year starters Jorden Stacey (Evangel) and Haley Stallings (College of the Ozarks), who were vital pieces for Fair Grove’s passing and defensive schemes.

Only one game in, but so far, so good.

Fair Grove dominated down the stretch against Clever to take the decisive third set, continuing its recent dominance in the annual early season non-conference meeting between the Class 2 schools.

Sophomore Alana Findley had 11 kills, 13 digs and three aces as Fair Grove prevailed in its season opener at home, 25-19, 18-25, 25-19.

It was a promising debut for a Fair Grove team that won 28 games but graduated seven seniors after last season. Fair Grove has won at least 20 games each season this decade.

“We’re working on figuring it all out,” said Fair Grove coach Tonya Peck. “All summer long, I switched rotations and did it tonight, too. I had the same setter for four years and now we don’t have her. It’s just all new, but the kids are working really hard to make it work.

“I’ve got talented kids and they know those are big shoes to fill. I’m not comparing (the current players) to them. I’m wanting (the current players) to become their own players, so we’re working on that.”

Fair Grove is banking much of its success on the tandem of Findley – a super-athletic left-hander – and senior Tori Fishback, who both play all six rotations. Some new names have also cracked the regular varsity like with the likes of freshman setter Maranntha Holliman (team-high 18 assists vs. Clever), 6’2” sophomore OH Harley Maxwell and 5’10” junior MH Taylor Bell (3 blocks).

Clinging to a 17-16 lead in the third set, Findley delivered a pair of kills to help the Eagles extend their lead to 22-18 and pull away for good.

The Eagles’ defense was also key. Fair Grove kept multiple balls alive with diving saves throughout the third set.

“Our defensive play was what was causing the momentum shift, so we needed to keep that up,” Peck said. “It wasn’t the kills and blocks – those are great – but it was the defensive saves and things like that.”

The outcome marked Fair Grove’s fifth straight win over Clever. Overall, Fair Grove is 7-1 against Clever in the regular season dating back to 2009. The two teams have won a combined 17 district titles since 2002.

Clever, which beat Marionville in its season opener on Tuesday, was slow to get out of the gates in its second game. The Blue Jays fell behind 10-3 in the opening set, prompting coach Angie Wise to call an early timeout.

“We were really tight coming out,” Wise said. “Everybody was tight and we couldn’t do anything right. We started swinging out of bounds… just couldn’t do anything right that first set.

“After that first set, we talked about having pride, playing like ourselves and playing like we know how to play. Everybody needed to relax.”

Clever bounced back, taking the second set 25-18. Expectations are high for the SWCL Blue Jays, who return their entire varsity lineup from a team that won 17 games last season.

 “We didn’t have our finest match tonight,” Wise said. “We weren’t on but at least we didn’t give up. We came back and fought. We didn’t roll over and die. We had a little pride.”

Fair Grove (1-0) plays in the Lori Endicott Tournament at Willard High School this Saturday. Clever hosts Cassville on Monday.
 

STAT LEADERS
FAIR GROVE

Kills: Alana Findley, 11
Digs: Alana Findley, 13
Blocks: Taylor Bell, 3
Assists: Maranntha Holliman, 18
Aces: Alana Findley, 3
 
CLEVER
Kills: Taylor Menzies, 8
Blocks: Abi Menzies, 4; Taylor Menzies, 3
Digs: Madi Wilson, 12
Assists: Lindsay Peebles, 8