Joplin’s Saunders leaves on a high note after Eagles fall in district finals

By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

Joplin’s first time playing for a district championship in over a decade ended decisively in a three-set loss to Lee’s Summit West on Wednesday night in Carthage.

But the tears on faces emerging from the Eagles locker room were about more than the loss.

Head coach Staci Saunders told the team afterwards she was stepping down from the role. An appearance in the Class 5 District 12 finals was a good way to end it.

“I’m feeling great,” she said. “Yes I’m sad because I announced to the girls tonight I will not be coming back after 20-plus years but I’m very, very happy we ended it the way we did and this is a really good group to end on. But it’s just time to have new people breathe fresh air into Joplin volleyball.”

Saunders’ teams had reached the district semifinals six times this decade but Wednesday was the first time Joplin was able to break through.

It did so earlier Wednesday as the three seed with a 3-0 win against second seed Carthage, a team that had defeated the Eagles by the same score a month ago.

“We just played gutsy and we just played with confidence,” she said. “We came in knowing our records were similar and that we could win if we would play our best volleyball. I felt we did play our best volleyball.”

Joplin improved to 15-14-1 with that win and earned a match with top-seeded Lee’s Summit West (18-6) in the process after the Titans dispatched Ray-Pec 3-1 earlier in the night.

It proved to be a tall order against a Titans team making its fifth-straight appearance in a district championship match and seeking its third title in that span.

CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH

Lee’s Summit set the tone in the first set and rolled to a 25-10, 25-9, 25-16 win.

Of Joplin’s 10 points in the first set, half came from Titans service errors. Sophomore Angeline Peralta added a tip for the Eagles and senior Aubrey Ritter, sophomore Allie Lawrence and junior Angelina Schramm added kills.

The Titans used a 9-0 run to open up a 14-3 advantage in the second set and added a short 5-0 spurt later on. Schramm, Lawrence and Peralta recorded kills and senior Shahla Kellhofer served up an ace.

Joplin showed some life in the third set and jumped ahead 5-2 with help from kills by junior Emma Floyd and Lawrence. Joplin led 7-5 after a Peralta kill and 8-7 after one by Ritter, and Ritter added another point off a block moments later to tie it at 10.

But with Lee’s Summit leading 12-11, the Titans rolled off 10-straight points and never let Joplin get within eight points after that.

“I felt like we played very hesitant and we weren’t playing with confidence,” Saunders said. “The COC is a tough conference, we’re used to playing really tough opponents and Lee’s Summit’s good. We see Ozark, Nixa, they’re all very good. I felt like we just played very safe and scared instead of coming out playing confidently knowing we play teams like this all the time.”

“Lee’s Summit, credit them,” she said. “They played very steady and just put it to us. We couldn’t read a block to save our life that first set. They had free reign to kill and they did.”

Ritter and senior Kaylie Anderson each recorded five digs and junior Addison Saunders had four assists.

Ritter totaled 10 kills against Carthage and Saunders and Lawrence each had seven. Saunders added 14 assists, senior Baileigh Riley had 14 assists, Ritter had 15 digs and Anderson had 13 digs.

“We’re a tight group and it was a really hard decision,” Saunders said of leaving the program. “It is time. I have three kids in college next year and I want to be able to go see them. I’ve been an Eagle my whole life. I was raised in Kaminsky (Gymnasium) and I went to high school and played in Kaminsky and I started my first job at Joplin High and started my first coaching job at Joplin High so it means something.

“Being an Eagle is something I’ve always chosen. I would never think about being a Cardinal or a Tiger any day of my life.”

Lee’s Summit received eight kills apiece from Sydney Handel, Abby Massengill and Kaelyn McDonald, while Lacey Higgins added 30 assists and Massengill recorded seven aces.

“We’ve never seen Joplin before so we had no preconceived notion of who we need to look out for, no scouting, we just came in and played loose and aggressive and the girls just had fun and really stepped up,” Lee’s Summit coach Jennifer Morgan said. “My hitters especially stepped up tonight.”

The Titans will face the winner of Lebanon and Springfield Central, who meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, in the sectional round on Saturday.