By Chris Parker
These power rankings are a measurement of dominance within class and not a strictly head-to-head comparison. Coaches are encouraged to send any information, including stats, milestones and records to Chris Parker (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1. Rogersville (C3)
Rogersville is a nationally ranked defending state champion with the state’s best player returning. Their perennially toughest opponent (Helias Catholic) moved up to Class 4. There was no question as to who would be No. 1 in these power rankings. The Lady Wildcats lose four all-conference seniors from last year’s 39-2 squad, but Gatorade Player of the Year Birdie Hendrickson returns to lead the squad. Last year she had 393 kills, 359 digs, 381 serve-receives, 43 assists, 31 aces and 19 blocks. Fellow All-State selection Claire Taylor also returns along with setter Samantha Thompson. We will learn a lot about Rogersville early on, as the Lady Wildcats open with Branson on Sept. 3 before playing Nixa, Willard and Ozark all in a seven-day period.
2. Willard (C4)
Willard is the only other area team that offers enough in the preseason to challenge Rogersville for the top spot in these initial rankings. The Lady Tigers return all but one player from last year’s Class 4 Final Four squad in all-state selection Daisie Cruse. Two all-state selections in Emily Terry and Ashton Wildermuth return for their senior seasons. One of the best junior duos in the state in Missouri State commits Maddy Bushnell and Payton VanVeen will look to expand their impact as hitters. Ashley Lasher gives Willard another all-conference player to lean on. This team is stacked. Circle Sept. 12 on your calendar. The Lady Tigers host Rogersville that night. It will be the best non-conference volleyball game in the area all season long.
3. Nixa (C4)
Nixa might have been a year ahead of schedule last year. The Lady Eagles were one of the area’s youngest teams, but still won 22 games against a brutal schedule. They advanced to the district title game where they fell to rival Ozark. Two all-state and four all-conference players return led by senior all-state selections Jordan Collard and Kenzie Hines. In all, Nixa has four seniors verbally committed to play collegiate volleyball. It is just a jamboree that counts for nothing in the regular season, but the Lady Eagles won all six sets at the Ozark Jamboree sweepingthe host Lady Tigers, Carl Junction and Glendale.
4. Ozark (C4)
Ozark is a bit of an unknown entering the season. For the first time in many years, the Lady Tigers don’t return a single all-conference player after graduating six all-conference players that are all playing collegiate volleyball. The Lady Tigers will just reload with five seniors and five juniors leading the way this season. This group has waited their turn and practiced every day against some of the best volleyball players in southwest Missouri over the past two or three seasons, so they will be a force even without immediate name recognition. Ozark could absolutely make a run back to the final four. The Lady Tigers are the most dominant area volleyball program over the last decade for a reason. I would bet that they have at least one all-state player come November. They are in this spot because for the first time in a long time their COC competitors return more highly-decorated varsity experience.
5. Strafford (C2)
Over the past five seasons Strafford has won 155 matches and five district titles. The Lady Indians are the picture of consistency. This year, two-time all-state selection Mica Chadwell returns to lead the team. Classmates Taylor Dormann and Kaitlyn Vote also return after finishing second and third behind Chadwell in kills last year. Strafford has every piece in place for another district championship run.
6. Aurora (C3)
Much like Nixa, Aurora was a year ahead of schedule last season. The Lady Houns entered their district as the No. 3 seed, but upset their way to a second consecutive district title before falling to eventual state champion Rogersville in two sets in the sectional round. Aurora lost all-state selection Julia McVey to graduation, but all other key players return. That returning group includes three all-conference players in seniors Brooke Bellamy and Kortney Juracek along with sophomore setter Gabi McVey. The Big 8 East will again be brutal, but Aurora will be up there competing for one of the top spots.
7. Billings (C1)
Billings earned a final four trip last season where the Lady Wildcats would finish in fourth place with an overall record of 26-6-2. Most Class 1 teams would struggle to replace a five-player senior class that included an all-state player. Billings is not most Class 1 teams. All-state selection Bailey Groves returns for her senior season after putting down 316 kills and accounting for 418 digs. Classmates Morgan Heimer and Bailie Williams both also return after each tallied more than 150 kills last year. Williams will take on setting duties this season. If Billings can get consistent setting then the Lady Wildcats will again be the team to beat in Class 1 in this area.
8. Kickapoo (C4)
I watched Kickapoo at its home jamboree on Tuesday. In the first set of the night, the Lady Chiefs went on a 21-0 run to take the first set of the jamboree 25-4. In jamborees, both teams start with four points. They will be led by senior all-state selection Tayte Kozlowski and junior Mizzou commit Lauren Forbes. Kozlowski is a rare player who was able to lead her team in both kills and assists last season. There is a lot of depth for Kickapoo, but their district will again be the toughest in the area with Nixa and Ozark both returning to Class 4 District 10. Regular season matches against Ozark (Sept. 10) and Nixa (Sept. 17) will be huge for district seeding.
9. Miller (C1)
Miller has won at least 26 matches in three consecutive seasons. The Lady Cardinals must replace four seniors from last year’s squad including all-state selection Bethany Gulick. Losing a top hitter like Gulick will hurt a little less thanks to sophomore setter Alli Mitchell returning after posting 661 assists last year. Classmate Claudia Hadlock also returns after earning second-team all-conference honors last season.
10. MV-BT Liberty (C2)
Liberty must replace a deep senior class that included four all-conference and two all-state selections that led the Lady Eagles in every statistical category coming off a fourth place finish in Class 2 last year. This year, all-conference juniors Peyton Bush and Kelstin Roy return. Three seniors in Kennedy Cooley, Kaitlyn King and Amber Collins will provide experience. Liberty might be a work in progress early, but Coach Shari Tune will have her team ready for the playoffs come late October.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR: El Dorado Springs (C2), Licking (C2), Marshfield (C3), Nevada (C3), Rolla (C4)