Eagle 4-peat: Liberty beats Willow Springs for district title

 

The past two seasons, the Mountain View-Birch Tree/Liberty volleyball team has felt the burden of high expectations. This year, the Eagles say they’ve tried to enjoy the ride that comes with another trip to the state playoffs.

Liberty claimed its fourth straight district championship on Tuesday night, besting SCA foe Willow Springs 25-13, 25-14 in the Class 2 District 9 finals at Cabool High School.

Liberty, which won a Class 2 state title in 2014, will face Strafford (31-1-1 overall) in the Class 2 sectional round this Saturday in Sarcoxie at a to-be-determined time. It’s the third straight season the two schools have met in the state playoffs.

The winner of that game will play either Clever or Sarcoxie later in the day for a trip to Cape Girardeau and the Class 2 final four.

“Last year, (winning districts) was so expected of us that it felt like we really didn’t get a chance to enjoy it. It was much more exciting for us this year. The girls didn’t feel quite the pressure they had in the past,” said Liberty coach Shari Tune. “We’ve had a lot of ups-and-downs this year. We’ve changed the rotation 15 million times. (District titles) are all nice, but some feel like they’re more earned than others. It’s always nice to get one.”

The outcome marked Liberty’s third win over Willow Springs this season, continuing a recent trend in the conference series. The Eagles have won 23 straight matches against Willow Springs dating back to 2009, and taken 46 of 47 sets in that span.

“With a team like Liberty, you have to match hitting for hitting and digging for digging,” said Willow Springs coach Valerie Jackson. “When you don’t do that, then they start picking up on you.”

PHOTOS: LIBERTY VS. WILLOW SPRINGS

Liberty pulled away decisively in both sets, as Willow Springs’ serve-receive and passing struggles limited its opportunities for quality attacks.

A Conway kill in the first set sparked a Liberty spurt, as the Eagles stretched an 8-5 lead to 13-7. After a kill from Willow Springs’ Jessica Miller made it 13-8, Liberty reeled off six straight points, capped by a Makayla Elliott kill.

Willow Springs made it a bit tighter in the second set, drawing even at 10-10 after Liliya Dudko’s kill. But a tandem block from Brenley Stearns and Piper Francis and a pair of Willow Springs errors pushed the Eagles in front for good, 16-12.

Senior Brook Conway led Liberty in kills (eight) and assists (11). She was an outside hitter last season but shifted to a full-time setter’s role in Liberty’s 6-2 for the 2016 season.

“She’s worked her butt off the past eight months to get to that spot. She wanted it and she earned it,” Tune said. “She’s worked on her speed, her quickness, her jumping. She definitely deserves to be out there.”

Ally Smith added four blocks and Madison Berry had 11 digs for Liberty (26-6-1 overall). The Eagles have tweaked and re-tweaked their lineups throughout the season.

“We’ve changed rotations at least five times, probably,” Stearns said. “Just from the beginning of this summer, we’ve had lots of changes and lots of setters and liberos going in and out. We’ve had players playing all the way around, or sometimes playing front row, or sometimes playing back row, just trying to figure out what works for us.”

Setter Kaitlyn Perkins had 11 assists and freshman Tessa Duddridge tallied 11 digs for the Bears. Willow Springs graduates only two seniors, but arguably its two best players in co-captains Grace Bailey (four blocks, 2 kills) and Cassidy Crewse (four kills, six digs).

Willow Springs, which was playing for a district title for the first time in 17 years, ends its season 22-9-2 overall. The Bears’ surpassed their 2015 win total (20) by two games and clinched back-to-back seasons of 20 or more wins for the first time in Jackson’s 26-year tenure.

“I don’t have a lot of complaints,” Jackson said. “Of course, you always want to go on to the next (round). But I think we did pretty darn good.”