All year long, the Ozark Lady Tiger volleyball team has had their sights set on getting back to state. The road hasn’t been easy. They’re younger than last year’s squad. They also lost two starters to injuries – the most recent being freshman Paige Perry who broke her arm in practice Friday.
But a team with this much drive led by a coach who is just as passionate about her players is a dangerous team. The Lady Tigers proved that Wednesday, defeating Kickapoo in two sets (25-18, 25-22) to win their fourth straight Class 4, District 11 title.
“This is a special one,” said coach Becky Justis. “We did it without Jade (Hayes) and we did it without Meghan (Stacy). That’s just a ginormous thing for us. And we did it with two starters going down.”
Wednesday’s game was a rematch of last year’s district championship, where Kickapoo fell three points short of making a trip to sectionals. Fans looking for an exciting game got their wish.
Ozark (25-7) and Kickapoo (21-9) feature big hitters, which meant keeping unforced errors to a minimum would be key to each team.
Unfortunately, the Lady Chiefs struggled coming out of the first set with two service errors that helped Ozark go up 8-4 before increasing their lead to 18-10.
Then Kickapoo clawed their way back, cutting the lead to 24-18 after star senior Maris Below had three kills in a row. However, an errant serve gave Ozark the first set.
With Kickapoo riding on the momentum of the end of the first set, the second set was a nail biter all the way until the end.
Neither team was ever more than two points ahead in the second set until the final score. After Kickapoo led 10-8, Ozark tied it up and each team exchanged a one point before the Lady Tigers got an ace to go up 18-16.
From there, Ozark took control and pushed the score to 22-17, but Kickapoo answered with a short run of their own.
A couple Lady Tiger unforced errors helped Kickapoo make another push, cutting the score to 24-22.
Fittingly, it was Ozark senior Jackie Fugate – a four-year starter for the Lady Tiger squad – who scored a kill to win the game 25-22.
Kickapoo was able to keep Fugate quiet for much of the first set and some of the second set, which meant the Lady Tigers needed others at the net to step up – and they did, getting solid play from underclassmen, including junior Ivy Reynolds, sophomore Ashley Ophoven and freshman Kendra Sater.
While Kickapoo focused on Fugate, Ozark was also well aware of Below and senior Emily Thater. The Lady Tigers relied on defense to handle the Kickapoo hard hitters and seniors Bridget Justis and Hayley Hunter stepped up.
“We knew coming in that they have amazing hitters and that we had to play defense like we never played defense before. And we did it,” said Bridget Justis, who had 20 digs for Ozark.
It was a tough loss for Kickapoo, said coach Debbie Downs, who spent a lot of time in the locker room with her team after the game.
“It’s gut wrenching, to say the least,” Downs said of the loss. “They felt like they left it all out on the floor. District championship – you set that as a goal for yourself at the beginning of the season. And for four years we’ve been this close every time, and we just can’t seem to get over the hump.”
And while Downs’ heart aches for her team, she can’t help but think about her team’s leader and what a championship would have meant for Below, who is widely considered one of the top players in the region.
“She was so close last year,” Downs said. “A district championship would have been a nice crown for her career in high school. I think everybody really wanted it for Maris.”
While Below’s high school career is over, she’ll move on to her collegiate career next year when she’ll join the University of Miami – Ohio volleyball team.
As for Ozark, the Lady Tigers will move on to sectional play Saturday and will host Republic.
Kickapoo 18 – 22
Ozark leaders – Jackie Fugate (7 kills, 2 blocks), Kendra Sater (9 kills), Brianna Justis (14 assists), Bridget Justis (20 digs)
Kickapoo leaders – Maris Below (11 kills, 8 digs), Lauren McCann (13 assists), Kimberly Thomas (2 blocks), Rae Ann Myers (2 blocks)