By John Miller (for OzarksSportsZone.com)
Nixa, Mo. — There might be a new top dog in southwest Missouri volleyball.
After watching conference rival Nixa win the Class 4 state title a season ago, Willard swept the Eagles in impressive fashion on Tuesday night, 35-33, 25-15, 25-21.
“This is the best team effort we’ve had since the season started,” Willard coach Jamalee Hancock said. “We’ve had great individual performances by girls on the team this year, but every one of them came to play tonight.”
Payton Van Veen led the Tigers in kills with 19, while Missouri State commit Maddy Bushnell added 15 and eight kill-blocks. Jaycee Fixsen paced Nixa with 15 kills, and Taylor Golmen contributed nine. Sydney Golden dished out 40 assists for the Eagles.
“We know when we get the ball in Payton and Maddy’s hands, they’re super hard to defend,” Hancock said. “(Setter) Paige Gayer did a great job getting them balls and making them all hittable. They’re so powerful and smart that they knew when to throw the offspeed stuff and frustrate Nixa.”
The match arguably was decided in the opening set, which featured seven lead changes and 18 ties. Willard fell behind 6-2 early before winning 11 of the next 14 points to take a 13-9 lead, punctuated by a block-kill from Bushnell.
Willard stretched its lead to 19-13 before Nixa answered with a 6-0 run, evening the set at 19-19. It was back-and-forth from there, with Willard fighting off five set points and taking the opening stanza 35-33.
“For us to be one point away from losing that set multiple times and fight back …,” Hancock said. “We had a pretty good cushion early, but Nixa fought back and put the pressure on us. That was a huge momentum carrier for us into the second set.”
Nixa couldn’t overcome the first set loss, dropping 10 of the first 14 points of the second. Willard led by as many as nine points in the second (21-12) until a Bushnell kill gave the Tigers a 25-15 set victory.
The Eagles showed more life in the third, taking a 2-0 lead on a dig/kill from junior Addison Tauai. But Willard scored five of the next six points and never trailed from there. Fittingly enough, Bushnell’s 15th kill of the night closed out the defending champs.
“This is a huge confidence boost for us to come on their home turf and win,” Hancock said. “They have so many great athletes and they’re so well coached. If we could play Nixa every day of the week, we’d take it. They only make us better.”