Another year, another case of Willard not having that lucrative 6-footer in the middle.
Coach Jamalee Hancock and the Tigers have grown accustomed to it. Oh well, another season of at least 20 wins (Willard’s sixth straight) and – potentially – a run in the state playoffs will have to do.
Willard (25-4-3 overall) handed COC-Large newcomer Carl Junction its second league loss of the season, prevailing 25-21, 25-18 at home Tuesday night. Juniors Kara Finkbiner and Kennedy Atkinson had six kills apiece to lead the Tigers.
Willard has again made it work without ideal height, instead relying on fundamentals, passing and a scrappy defensive unit keying the success. The tallest Tigers on this year’s roster are listed as 5’10” junior Timberlyn Barnett and the 5’9” Finkbiner.
“In my 18 years here, we’ve had two 6-footers,” Hancock said. “But, you know what? Kids with ball control… I’ll take that. Height is not the end-all, be-all.”
The task for the undersized Willard team on Tuesday was to negate Carl Junction’s three-headed attack of 5’9” Lexi Miller (3.9 kills per set on the season), 6’1” Grace Southern (2.8 kills per set) and 5’7” Kenzie Stinnett.
Hancock elected to focus Willard’s defense on limiting CJ’s outside attacks.
“Going into the game, I told both my pin blockers, ‘Normally, we pinch, but we’re staying out because they love that shoot attack,” Hancock said. “We’re small, but I got some kids that are pretty smart at times and they made it work.”
Willard built a 16-10 lead in the first set, but an ace by Miller sparked a Carl Junction rally. The Bulldogs eventually tied it 18-all, then went up 21-19 on a kill and block on consecutive points by Olivia Lewis, followed by a Southern kill.
Willard answered, rallying to take the set after scoring the final four points on a pair of kills by Finkbiner around two Carl Junction errors.
“I thought, overall, we were playing well coming into tonight,” said Bulldogs coach Cheryl Sharples. “We (beat) Betonville (Monday) night in three sets and played really well. I felt like we just didn’t have enough of our team show up tonight to be able to compete with that good of a team (Willard).”
After spotting Carl Junction a 4-0 lead in the second set, Willard scored six straight points, the final three coming on a trio of aces by freshman Emily Terry.
Lindsay Britton later added back-to-back aces to put Willard up 9-5. Willard had six aces in the second set.
“Those top-spin serves by Terry, those were big for us,” Hancock said. “Our game plan is just to play the best volleyball on our side of the net that we can.”
Carl Junction recovered to take a 17-15 lead, but Willard made the knockout blow with a 7-0 spurt, capped by a kill from Atkinson.
“I felt like our 3-4-5 rotation was actually producing more points, so we put them out there first (in the second set),” Sharples said. “We just couldn’t maintain that momentum after we rotated out of it.”
The win continued a bounce-back stretch of play for Willard, which won the Licking Tournament over the weekend to reach the 20-win plateau before Tuesday night’s match. Willard lost a three-set heartbreaker at Ozark last Thursday that saw the Black and Silver Tigers cough up two match points in the final set.
“Being up 24-22 in set three against Ozark and not winning that one was a killer, but we walked out of there knowing if we can play to the best of our ability, we can be a good team,” Hancock said.
Carl Junction (15-9, 5-2) competes at the Ozark Tournament this weekend. Sharples said, overall, she’s been pleased with how the Bulldogs have competed in their first year of competition in the COC-Large.
“We’re coming into tonight 5-1 in the conference and even the one loss we had against Ozark, I felt like we played them pretty well,” she said. “I just didn’t feel, as a team, we showed up tonight to play.”
CJ stat leaders
Kills: Stinnett, 6
Digs: Stinnett, 10
Blocks: Lewis, 2; Miller, 2
Assists: Lawson, 16
Willard stat leaders
Kills: Finkbiner, 6; Atkinson, 6
Digs: Brower, 19
Assists: Willard, 13
Blocks: Atkinson, 2; Williams, 2
Aces: Emily Terry, 3
Willard JV def. Carl Junction JV: 25-22, 19-25, 25-11
Willard freshmen def. Carl Junction freshmen: 25-11, 25-11