Strafford beats Mountain Grove in straight sets

For three weeks, as she nursed a right foot injury, Strafford High School junior and Missouri State commit Chloe Rear could only watch the season go on without her.

You should have seen her in her season debut Thursday night.

Rear delivered 12 kills and 19 assists, and senior Rilie Vote punctuated the evening with a strong performance, too, as the Lady Indians swept the visiting Mountain Grove Lady Panthers in straight sets 25-9, 25-19.

“It was awesome,” Rear said of the day. “Walking through the halls and people asking, ‘Are you going to play?’ I was excited the whole time.”

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In improving to 8-1-1, Strafford proved it will be formidable once again just a year after finishing as the Class 2 state runner-up.

Clearly, the Lady Indians aren’t a one-person army and, anyone playing in their home gym should know that they don’t just bring a team. They also are backed by a raucous student section whose energy seemed to feed Strafford’s lineup.

Then again, expectations have long been high here. Just look up at the west wall of the gymnasium. It’s decorated in district, conference and state successes going back to the 1980s.

With that backdrop, Strafford showed tremendous court awareness – particularly Rear and Vote – and found a rhythm in as the offense rotated.

For instance, the Lady Indians ran out to a 7-0 advantage in the opening set and led 17-5 after Rear set up Gracie Morton for a kill, forcing a Mountain Grove timeout.

“I was pretty nervous when I ran out and with all the lights flashing early,” said Rear, who injured her right foot the day after a preseason jamboree, re-aggravating an injury from early last season. “After the first couple of plays, I just looked at my teammates and was like, ‘There is no need to be nervous.’”

The team certainly didn’t look nervous, either. In the second set, Mountain Grove found success, keeping it close before forging a 15-15 tie.

From there, Strafford’s all-around game delivered. Rear delivered back-to-back kills after a Morton kill, with Rear softly hitting the ball to one corner of the court and then doing the same only to the other corner on the next play. Allisann Nichols followed with a service ace, and suddenly the Lady Indians were on an 8-0 run. Vote finished the game with a pair of kills.

“We stepped up the intensity tonight,” said Vote, who finished with two aces, 12 kills and eight digs. “We were ready mentally and executed our plays. At the beginning of the game, we were nailing all of our plays.”

Overall, it was an encouraging sign to Stafford coach Ashley Bough, who called the victory a team effort. That was a reflection of the past few weeks when a number of players received more court time.

“It was a good showing with this lineup,” Bough said. “We really have (bonded). In that situation, two things can happen when a player gets injured: A team can fold or they can kind of pick up the slack and better themselves. I’m so proud of my kids. They have come in every single day and worked hard.”

Meanwhile, Mountain Grove coach Amy McNew acknowledged that a long bus ride home might be good for her team, allowing players to think of the way Strafford plays in unison.

The mental notes they took could be beneficial to a young team that should know it has upside. Mountain Grove (5-5-1) has three sophomores in the starting lineup and still could compete in the South Central Association, given it has athleticism in junior Kacey Watson and an aggressive player up front in Marly Gourley.

Plus, McNew is back at the school after a two-year stint at West Plains. She was the coach when Mountain Grove advanced to the state tournament in 2012.

“We didn’t have a very good warm-up and came out scared to death and timid,” McNew said. “But in the second set, we decided to play from the beginning. But when we got down 16-15, we got timid again. We’re learning how to finish games and how to stay in it.”

McNew is seeing improvement.

“Everybody has gotten better in one aspect or another,” McNew said. “It’s just learning how to stay aggressive and stay confident in themselves to finish games. … I love to play tough competition. But that’s the only way you get better. You take your lumps along the way. So hopefully we gained something tonight.”