By Trent Singer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Cape Girardeau, Mo. — The trophy the Ozark Lady Tigers came searching for still remains ever so elusive.
A ninth straight trip to the final four ended in an all-too-familiar fashion for Ozark, as St. Joseph’s Academy claimed a 25-20, 25-13 win in the Class 4 championship game Saturday at the Show Me Center.
But this year’s trip was surely a building block for the Lady Tigers, who finished better than third place during their perennial run for the first time since 2009.
“I’m super proud of this group for kind of breaking that streak of having to play for a third-place trophy,” said Ozark coach Adeana Brewer, whose team competed for a state title for the first time during her four years at the helm. “Even though we didn’t come away with the one that we wanted today, I’m super proud of this group.
“They’ve just flourished and blossomed throughout the whole season, and I think that’s one of the proudest things, watching that growth and that development, not only as volleyball players, but also as competitors and athletes. Seeing that growth and being here, they need to be very proud of that.”
There were four ties at the outset of the first game before a kill by Madison Greshman concluded a 5-0 swing for the Angels (34-3), forcing Brewer to call the first timeout of the match with her team facing a 9-4 deficit.
St. Joseph’s took a 19-13 lead on a kill by Morgan Smith, but a furious, 5-0 rally pulled the Lady Tigers (31-9-3) back into contention at 19-18.
Unfortunately for Ozark, the hill was too tough to climb, as St. Joseph’s closed the match on a 6-2 burst that ended when Claire Ochs slammed down a kill to give the Angels a 1-0 lead in the match.
The two teams had squared off in pool play just one day prior, with St. Joseph’s pulling out a 25-21, 25-17 win, providing an abbreviated sense of familiarity for both sides.
“We knew that they were going to be tough,” Brewer said. “They’re a great opponent. They have a fantastic setter who makes every ball better, and we knew that they were not going to make many mistakes.
“Preparing for today, we knew that our energy had to be high, and we had to celebrate and play for each other.”
That setter was Gabrielle Blossom, who finished with a match-high 20 assists for the Angels and powered an attack that racked up 29 combined kills. Morgan Smith led the way for St. Joseph’s, finishing with 10 kills and seven digs, while Tara Beilsmith paced the defense with 11 digs.
“Even if we worked to get them out of system and they dug balls that were out of system, their setter was able to put their hitters up on the nets, and they were just continuously attacking at us,” Brewer said. “We were just constantly in defensive mode all the time. I think that frustrated our attackers at times when they didn’t get kills immediately or in transition.
“They’re a team that’s not going to make mistakes, so it’s just going to be a battle of who makes that first mistake. … They put their attackers in very successful situations, and it allows them to be very successful.”
Kinadie Wilcox and Kaitlyn Vorhies combined for a block to give Ozark a 1-0 lead to start the second set, but that was it.
St. Joseph’s answered with an 8-1 run and didn’t allow the Lady Tigers to draw closer than four points for the remainder of the match. St. Joseph’s pulled away at the end, using an 8-0 swing to secure its ninth volleyball state championship in school history.
“With a team like St. Joe that is so good and so crisp and doesn’t make mistakes, you can’t fall behind,” Brewer said. “It has to be a point-for-point trade almost every time, and if you don’t do that and allow a team like that to get three or four points at a time, it’s really hard to claw back. That’s something we’ve been successful doing this season, but against a team of that caliber, you just can’t dig those kinds of holes.”
Macey Putt had a team-high seven kills to go along with six digs for Ozark, which finished with a combined hitting percentage of .160. Brynn Bonewell led the Lady Tigers’ defense with 11 digs, while Kennedee Anderson contributed 19 assists and eight digs.
“We knew it was going to be a tough match for us, but I’m super proud of the kids for getting to play in a championship match,” Brewer said. “It hasn’t been done in eight years, so they had to step up and really do some good things yesterday to put themselves in this position. I’m happy for them.”
It’s the end of the road for Ozark seniors Putt, Wilcox, Elizabeth Parrish and Sidney Branson, all of whom know nothing short of watching their seasons end at the Show Me Center.
“These four seniors are going to be missed tremendously. … They’re just great people,” Brewer said. “The underclassmen really look up to them.
“They’re very special, and I think that when you have that senior class that just provides that example, you always reset when they leave and look for that next class. They just provided a really good example and have a passion for volleyball. They’re going to be missed for sure.”