By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
FAIR GROVE — Following Tuesday night’s district title match, Miller coach Tamra Landers took a moment to reflect on the support the town has given her volleyball team in the past few years.
There were easily more than 100 Cardinals fans who made the 50-minute drive here to watch Miller in the Class 2 District 11 title game, which is roughly one-seventh of the town’s population.
“Parents, grandparents, people that don’t even know anything about volleyball — they come and support us,” Landers said. “I mean, we’re small. We have a Dollar General now and a Casey’s, but other than that, you know, we’re small. So it’s great to have all the support that we have from all the family and all the parents and all the people that don’t even have a tie to it.”
The town may be small, but the Cardinals are making a big impact on the local volleyball scene.
With a 3-0 victory over Ash Grove, Miller earned its third district championship in the past four seasons and first since moving up from Class 1 this fall. It will play District 9 champion Clever on Saturday in the first round of the state tournament at home.
Without a senior on the roster, the Cardinals are 29-2 and have only lost 11 sets all season.
“Man, little old Miller is doing something right,” Landers said. “It’s all a tribute to the girls working hard every day, coming into the gym and doing anything we ask them to. They’re a great group.”
Miller’s only losses on the year were at the Mount Vernon tournament on October 3. They lost to Carthage, a Class 5 school, and Camdenton, which won the Class 4 District 8 title on Tuesday.
They’ve since won 17 straight games and enter the state tournament with a wave of confidence.
“I’ve wanted to play for a state title forever,” junior Alli Mitchell said. “We’re not there yet. We’ve got a few more steps along the way, but I think we can do it with this group of girls.”
Miller, the top seed in the district tournament, entered Tuesday’s game as the heavy favorites, having beaten third-seeded Ash Grove twice in the past three weeks. But the Pirates came out firing and led a tightly contested opening set 15-13 before Miller libero Addison Stockton rallied her team with five straight points off serves. The Pirates never led any set the rest of the night.
Miller won 25-21, 25-17 and 25-18 and now shifts its focus to the match with Clever, one of the few schools to take a set from Miller. The Cardinals beat the Bluejays 3-1 last Tuesday.
“Clever is a good team,” Landers said. “Hopefully we can put some things together and take care of it. We’re steady. That’s one of our good things. We’re not really up and down. We’re pretty calm. So I think that helps us.”
The other thing helping Miller is its depth. The Cardinals have just 10 players on the roster — Mitchell, Stockton, Haylie Schnake, Madison Ragsdale, Emberlynn Kingsley, Kaylee Hilton, Ashten Kingsley, Claudia Hadlock, Alyssa Hill and Lillie Ricketts — each has been a factor.
“Every single girl on this team contributes something at some point,” Landers said. “It seems like when somebody else is struggling, somebody else steps up.”
Ash Grove coach Diana Dreier, struggling to maintain composure in her post-game interview, lamented that her seniors Emma Eagleburger, Olivia Steimel, MacKenzie Lutz, Alexis Long and captain Briley Bagley had just played the last high school volleyball game of their careers. But she was exceptionally proud the quintet, the first class she’s had for all four years of high school, was the group that led the Pirates to their first district championship game in five years.
“As a core group, they lead on the floor really well. They push through in the end and they don’t give up,” Dreier said. “That’s the biggest thing they’ve brought to this program. They’ve shown that you can fight to the end no matter what and make a difference.”
Dreier also found solace that Ash Grove’s season ended on the court and not with a phone call. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, their title aspirations could have easily been derailed.
“All season long we’ve been constantly telling the girls ‘Be mindful of where you’re going. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Hand sanitize.’ You never know,” Dreier said. “Play every second as if it’s your last, because you never know what’s going to happen with everything that’s going on in life. You know, there was a time where I got quarantined due to an exposure and they pushed through during that time I was out. I couldn’t be more proud.”