By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Losing a large senior class, especially a class like the one Ozark lost, can deal a blow to any program. But, Lady Tigers coach Chris Shull says his current group is ready to prove itself.
“This group, thus far, has welcomed the challenge,” Shull said. “They have shown up in preseason wide-eyed and ready to work. They have great attitudes and the chemistry among them just keeps growing. I am beginning to see that our returning players are not concerned with all of the changes coming up.”
The Lady Tigers finished 15-8-2 overall and 8-1 (second place) in the Central Ozark Conference in 2019. They were able to avenge a regular-season loss to Nixa by upsetting the No. 2 seed, 2-1 in overtime, in the semifinals of the Class 4 District 9 tournament, before falling to Kickapoo, 1-0, in the title game.
The Ozark roster will look a little different with the loss of the highly decorated class of Jadyn Easley, Shannon Murphy, Keeley Combs, Ashley McCulloch, Ava Scott, Peyton Lane and Emma Pierson.
Easley, who went on to break the Ozark program record with 130 career goals and 60 assists for 320 points, scored 30 goals and had 11 assists last season. She earned Class 4 All-State First-Team, Class 4 Region 3 and All-COC First-Team honors, as well as being named Class 4 District 9 Offensive Player of the Year. She now is playing at the University of Missouri.
Murphy scored 20 goals and added 14 assists in addition to being an all-region, all-district and all-conference first-team selection. She is playing at Evangel University.
Combs (Drury University) was named to the all-district and all-conference first-teams; McCulloch and Scott (both playing for Drury) earned all-district and all-conference second-team honors; and Lane (Stephens College) was an all-district second-team and all-conference honorable mention selection.
“They are great soccer players,” Shull said. “I wanted to see that squad win a championship, but what I will miss most is them as people. This was a good group of girls with big hearts. Their talent will be missed. They are on to bigger things and we wish them luck in their future endeavors.”
With just three seniors on the 2020 roster, the Lady Tigers will feature a young lineup, which will be led by:
• Olivia Belles, senior, midfielder – “Strong midfielder that brings experience and leadership.”
• Eliza McComas, senior, defender – “Vital to our leadership this year; great defender and very knowledgeable; will play an important role in our defense this season.”
• Ashley Mallonee, senior, midfielder – “Ashley is a utility player that has played both midfield and forward. She keeps improving and worked hard in the offseason. We expect good things from her.”
• Emily McCulloch, junior, defender – “Every season, it never fails that a team will have that one or two surprise players that step up. Emily was one of those surprises. We were riddled with injuries on defense (Ava Scott and Madison Spies). Emily stepped right in and gave us solidity on defense. We are excited to have her back this year.”
• Madison Spies, junior, defender – “Madison comes to us this season healthy and ready to go. She has a lot of raw talent and a very big will to win. She is a tough player that welcomes challenges.”
• Madison Morgan, sophomore, forward – “Madison was our only freshman last year that played a majority of varsity. She was able to compete and contribute as a freshman. We are asking her to continue to improve as she begins her second season on varsity.”
• Laney Burks, sophomore, goalkeeper – “Last year, Laney was a freshman goalie that finished the season as a starter. She, too, was able to step in and contribute to varsity. We anticipate her to have a full year.”
• Abby Ford, sophomore, midfielder – “Abby doesn’t not have a long resume/soccer background. She is the epitome of the multi-sport athlete. (Has earned multiple postseason honors in both her freshman and sophomore seasons in softball.) She has a great attitude and works feverishly to improve. She played very little varsity last year, but that is about to change. I have a history of coaching multi-sport athletes, so I am excited to see Abby go to the next level.”
The Lady Tigers have a large freshman class that Shull and his coaching staff will continue to evaluate as the season approaches.
“With only having three seniors and 3-4 juniors, we will be young,” Shull said. “Our freshmen will be asked to step up and play at a high level. Some will play varsity, some will be swing players, some will develop full-time on junior varsity.
“It is a very good year to be a freshman soccer player. Each freshman has the opportunity to establish their role at the varsity level.”
Ozark will host a jamboree that will include Catholic, Rogersville and Republic on March 13, before opening the regular season on the road against Columbia-Battle and Columbia-Hickman on March 21.
“Although we realize we are starting over in a way, we will be a cohesive unit,” Shull said. “We are all in the same position of establishing our own identity this season and look forward to doing so.
“Our three current seniors will step up to fill the void of losing so many seniors from last year. As for the freshmen, they can’t miss what they never had, so it makes no difference to them. They are just eager to get started.”