By Kai Raymer (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
Willard finally has something to fill that empty spot in the gymnasium next to the 2002 and 2004 state volleyball banners.
A 2018 state volleyball banner.
The Tigers followed an upset win over Ozark in sectionals by outlasting Blue Springs South in three sets (25-23, 24-26, 25-14) in the quarterfinal round on Saturday.
“That (banner) has been waiting for us,” said Willard sophomore Payton Van Vleen. “We just think it’s been like the perfect time for us to come out and put our names on the wall. It means a lot to us.”
Maddie Bushnell had a team-high 12 kills for Willard. Ashton Wildermuth issued 33 assists.
Willard advances to next week’s Class 4 state volleyball championship at the Show-Me Center in Cape Girardeau. Willard plays Lafayette, Eureka and St. Teresa’s Academy in pool play on Friday.
The top two teams from pool play meet in the Class 4 state finals at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
“This has been a 14-year goal,” said Willard coach Jamalee Hancock. “We’ve been so close so many times.”
It’s the fifth trip to state overall for Willard – the Tigers also made it that far in 1980 and 1983 and won a state title in 1981 – but first appearance as a Class 4 program.
“It’s amazing,” said Willard junior Emily Terry, who had seven aces in the quarterfinal match. “Oh my gosh, the practices that we’ve been through lately to just prepare for this day… It feels great. It really does.”
Willard began the day by beating Ozark in three sets. That outcome ended Ozark’s streak of nine straight final four appearances.
“We were on such a high,” Hancock said. ““I was hoping we wouldn’t have this big letdown of emotion (against Blue Springs South) because it took so much out of the girls to win that (Ozark) match.”
Willard then watched as Blue Springs South took out Carl Junction in the other sectional game.
“A lot of times, when you come off an emotional high like that you just crash,” Terry said. “But we just came out and we wanted to win and we did it. It was about focus. We had to come in and play our game.”
Against Blue Springs South, Willard fell behind early in each of the first two sets.
In the decisive third set, Willard had leads of 5-1, 10-4 and 14-6. Terry’s seventh ace of the match gave Willard an 18-8 lead and the Tigers cruised from there.
“First thing I thought afterwards was, ‘Oh, we finally did it,’” Van Veen said. “I just started crying because I’m so proud of everybody. We all stepped up together and really showed what we could do as a team.”
Bushnell had four blocks and Ashley Lasher added three blocks for Willard. Terry and Daisie Cruse had 16 digs apiece.
After beating Blue Springs South, Willard’s players gathered for a photo. They posed with their fingers pointed to where the 2018 state volleyball banner will hang.
“My kids have stood underneath that spot since the first day of the season,” Hancock said. “They knew, if they put it together, that we had a team (good enough) to get there.”