By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Strafford, Mo. — In the late 1970s, Licking volleyball made four-straight trips to the Final Four and captured two championships during that span.
Fast forward to Saturday — 40 years since the team’s last appearance — and the Lady Wildcats are headed back.
Licking rallied to defeat Strafford in three sets (14-25, 25-23, 25-20) to secure a spot in next weekend’s Class 2 Final Four in Cape Girardeau.
Abagail Moncrief paced the Lady ‘Cats with a team-high 10 kills in the match.
The 5-foot-11 senior showcased both power and precision at the net while consistently finding open holes in the Strafford defense.
“I really gotta watch the spots on the floor and see what’s open,” Moncrief said. “A lot of times, my coach will tell me they’re stacking three on me, so I really can’t hit — I’ve got to tip behind them when their other players are on their heels waiting for me to hit.”
Following a rough first set in which the Lady ‘Cats were defeated 25-14, head coach Ashley Martin — in only her first season at Licking — urged her team to relax and just play.
“The first set was not my team at all, and we talked about that,” Martin said. “We did not play well at all. So, going into the second and third sets, our whole thing was just to take this moment in, not to focus on the errors and not to dwell on the little things.”
Licking responded with an 8-3 run to open up the second set, while a quintet of Moncrief kills helped bulldoze the path.
Despite the early deficit, Strafford would rally.
Paced by kills from Taylor Dormann and Mica Chadwell, the Lady Indians recaptured the lead and stretched to a 21-19 advantage late in the set.
A resilient Licking squad would not be denied, however, as senior Abby Cole’s ace closed out the second set with a 25-23 Ladycat victory.
“Serve-receive was key for us,” Martin said. “They kept us out of system a lot in that first set. Once our serve-receive came back, like normal, we were able to put hits away and find our attackers.”
With momentum on its side, Licking opened the final set firing on all cylinders.
Powered by a second Cole ace and a trio of kills from junior Kamryn Barnes, the Lady Cats jumped out to a commanding 10-0 lead.
Strafford would rally, but each time momentum seemed ready to shift, Moncrief and Barnes were there to stem the tide.
Martin praised the pair for their performances and vital on-court leadership.
“They are the most natural-born leaders I’ve ever seen in my life,” Martin said. “They know how to fire a team up, they know how to come together and they know how to get the job done, so they are my go-tos. When we needed points, we absolutely fed them.”
A late Strafford rally cut the deficit to just four points at 21-17; however, the Lady Indians would get no closer.
Licking senior Maggie Cline recorded the set’s final kill to give the Lady ‘Cats a 25-20 victory and a berth in the Class 2 Final Four.
“Strafford was a big win for us,” Martin said. “Super hard to do on their home court because they have a good crowd section. My girls — I’m super proud of how they composed themselves.”
For Strafford and head coach Ashley Bough, the mental games of consistency and determination played pivotal roles in the team’s inability to turn back big Licking rallies.
“It’s probably one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have,” Bough said after emerging from the locker room. “Props to Licking. They came out, they played hard and balls that go down — they did not let down, and I felt like we kind of mentally imploded. I felt like we had some lack of consistency, and our communication broke down when things got tight. We dug ourselves too big a hole there in that third set to be able to climb back and respond.”
Seniors Kaitlyn Vote and Mica Chadwell tallied 10 kills each to lead the Lady Indians, while Madalynn Ward notched 32 assists. Vote added 7 digs.
Strafford ends its season at 31-4.
Up next for Licking (31-8) is a semifinal round matchup against Hermann on Friday, Nov. 8, in Ste. Genevieve.
Class 2 Quarterfinal: Licking – 2, Strafford – 1 (14-25, 25-23, 25-20)
Sectional round results
Strafford 25-9, 25-7 over Diamond
Licking 25-23, 25-21 over Stockton