Willard wins seventh consecutive district title

By Michael Cignoli (ForOzarksSportsZone.com)

WILLARD — Before the third set of Wednesday night’s Class 4 District 9 championship game, two Willard fans briefly left their seats, procured a pair of brooms from somewhere in the high school and proceeded to march them down the sideline in a manner that no one could miss.

By the middle of the fourth set, the brooms were protruding from a garbage can.

Riding a wave of momentum, Logan-Rogersville was suddenly poised to force a winner-take-all fifth set against the hosts. It was precisely the kind of moment where the Tigers needed their best players to take charge, and Maddy Bushnell and Payton Van Veen were up to the task.

Led by the two seniors, Willard rallied back from an early fourth-set deficit to close out Logan-Rogersville, 3-1, and claim the school’s seventh consecutive district title. The Tigers will visit District 11 champion Carl Junction on Saturday for the first round of the state tournament.

“They really came on,” Willard coach Jamalee Hancock said of the two, who have committed to play college volleyball. “We didn’t seem to connect well in that third set and we got down early in the fourth set. Payton Van Veen really stepped up — and Maddy too. Maddy is so talented. Sometimes you feel like if she misses one or two, it’s an off night. But she did such a great job.”

The Tigers took the first two sets 25-15 and 25-19, but Logan-Rogersville rallied for a 25-22 win in the third to avoid the sweep. The Wildcats took a 7-2 lead in the fourth set before Willard called timeout. When play resumed, the hosts scored 23 of the next 31 points for a 25-15 win.

CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS OF THE MATCH

Bushnell, who will play at Missouri State, and Van Veen, who will play at Division II Washburn, took control of the game with the Tigers down 11-7 in the fourth. With Taylor Crighton serving, the pair alternated kills to pull the Tigers within one, and a Van Veen block evened the score.

Bushnell added another kill to put the hosts in front for good.

“We realized it was time to go,” said Van Veen, who had a game-high 26 kills. “We really wanted that win. We realized we needed to do everything for our team. I think everybody just stepped up and everything was flowing really well and we got done what we needed to get done.”

Logan-Rogersville had a chance to pull even after Willard misplayed a ball and sent it soaring back toward the gymnasium wall. What followed was a Herculean defensive effort where the Tigers chased down the ball and somehow were able to send it back over the net for a point.

That made it 14-12 for the Tigers, and the Wildcats scored just three times the rest of the night.

“You get a team on their heels like that and they battle back and end up winning that point on a long rally, that’s a momentum shift,” Wildcats coach Emily Hutcheson said. “They were able to capitalize on that. We needed another momentum shift like that to happen for us.”

It never materialized.

Hutcheson said she told her team to focus on shutting down Bushnell and Van Veen in the third set and try to “rattle their cages” — forcing them to take shots they otherwise would not take.

That worked for a while, but once the pair got rolling again they were unstoppable. Their resurgence also opened the doors for some other Tigers to make plays — and Paige Durham, Paige Gayer and Sara Lawson each had key contributions as the Tigers pulled away in the end.

“We have 11 on varsity and they all have a role and it has been just critical for each of them to keep buying into the team concept — and they have,” Hancock said. “This has been one of the best teams in my 23 years as far as working together, being great teammates and everybody giving 100 percent every day. You know, it’s just fun to see them succeed. They’re great kids.”

Willard opened the season 24-1-1 — the loss and tie coming to reigning Class 3 champion St. Francis Borgia at that school’s home tournament — but had lost two of three games heading into the playoffs. After Wednesday’s win, they sit at 27-3-1 and have lost just 13 sets all season.

One of those sets was against Carl Junction in a 3-1 victory on October 1 in Willard.

“It’s high school volleyball,” Hancock said. “Anything can happen.”

Logan-Rogersville, which won the Class 3 state title in 2018 and lost to St. Francis Borgia in the finals last season, finished its first year under Hutcheson at 11-7-1. It’s the first time since 2011 that the Wildcats did not win a district championship, ending a run of eight in a row.

They opened 2-5-1 as they adjusted to a new class, new coach, the graduation of state Player of the Year Birdie Hendrickson and one of the area’s toughest schedules. But they had gone 6-1 before a two-week shutdown that began on October 6, and won three in a row upon returning.

The timing of the shutdown was particularly crippling, Hutcheson said.

“We were coming into the part of our season where they could really build some confidence and work on just executing and running our offense how we wanted to run it coming into districts,” the coach added. “By having those two weeks off, it forced us to try to make up for lost time right when we got back in with one practice and then (playing a game.) That was difficult.”

The only thing that might have been more difficult is if the program was shut down a few days later and the Wildcats missed the tournament entirely. The fact they had a chance to compete — and gave Willard a run — after their tumultuous season made the result more digestible.

“You always want the opportunity to compete and give that final push and show people what you’re made of,” Hutcheson said. “That’s what my team did tonight. This season was not in vain at all. These girls competed all season. They battled adversity the entire season — not that any other team didn’t face adversity as well — but to come back after the quarantines and certain people being out and shifting going on, these girls took on those roles and they played their hearts out. They did it. They trusted each other and they trusted me. A coach dreams of stuff like that happening. It just makes my heart so happy that they came out and did their best every night.”