By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard’s volleyball program might just be living proof talent never graduates.
The Lady Tigers’ current run of six-straight district titles includes a Class 4 final four appearance and a gaudy 182-31-5 record during that span.
After falling just short of another final four berth in 2019 with a quarterfinal loss to Nixa — the eventual state champion — head coach Jamalee Hancock believes her team has the pieces in place to capture a seventh-straight district title and forge another deep postseason run.
“There will be a lot of talent in the area, so winning a district is never easy,” Hancock said. “But we have both talent and experience on our side, so that will definitely be a benefit to us in the postseason.”
Willard’s first order of business will be to find replacements for a trio of all-state selections in Ashley Lasher (230 kills, 19 aces, 71 blocks, 167 digs) Ashton Wildermuth (209 digs, 31 kills, 19 aces, 20 blocks) and Emily Terry (211 kills, 201 digs, 75 aces, 16 blocks).
All three will continue their respective athletic careers at the next level.
Lasher will attend Southwest Baptist University, Wildermuth Missouri State University – West Plains and Terry McPherson University.
Losing three all-state selections would severely hamper most rosters, but Willard isn’t quite like most schools.
The Lady Tigers will be led by a talented seniors at the net in 6-foot middle Maddy Bushnell (299 kills, 54 blocks) and 6-foot-1 outside hitter Payton Van Veen.
Bushnell earned all-state honors as a junior and has committed to play at Missouri State University next season.
“Maddy is a 6-foot powerhouse at the net,” Hancock said. “She hits high above the net and swings well anywhere. She’s an incredibly hard working humble player and is looked up to by everyone in our program.”
After registering 210 kills, 33 blocks and 19 aces as a sophomore, Van Veen tore her ACL and missed most of the 2019 campaign.
“Payton has a very heavy arm and will be competing to play six rotations for us,” Hancock said. “She is hungry to be back on the floor, and she will be a go-to hitter for us. Maddy and Payton will be two of the best players to ever play the game at Willard High School.”
Senior defensive specialist Taylor Crighton (244 digs, 26 aces) and junior defensive specialist Kindall Smithson (305 digs, 25 aces) also return to the Lady Tigers’ lineup to provide leadership and solidify the back line. Both have spent the past two years playing varsity, as well.
“Taylor is day-in and day-out one of the hardest working kids in the gym; she pushes everyone to be better,” Hancock said. “Kindall is one of our team’s best servers and an outstanding defensive player and passer with a very smooth skill set.”
Several varsity newcomers will compete for time and the chance to make an impact this season including juniors Grace Hancock, Lael Brandon, Paige Gayer, Paige Durham, Abby Wade and seniors Kelsey Kirkland and Sara Lawson.
While Willard features a host of depth and talent, Hancock is especially proud of her team’s chemistry heading into the fall season.
“We have an unbelievably talented team,” Hancock said. “We are strong in every position, and we have depth in every position. The best thing about this team though, is how coachable they are and how well they treat each other on the court. They are great teammates so I expect for us to have a really great year. I’m so excited to coach this group of young ladies.”
With plenty of size and capable hitters at the net, Willard’s attack will depend largely on how quickly Gayer is able to develop into her new role as the team’s primary setter.
Hancock believes the junior is already well on her way.
“One of the best things about Paige is she puts up a hittable ball consistently,” Hancock said. “She came out early this summer connecting with our “bigs” right out of the gate. She is becoming a very smart setter in a short amount of time, as the game is a lot faster at the varsity level.”
Gayer’s abilities play right into one of Willard’s primary advantages, which can’t be taught.
“Our size is an advantage for sure,” Hancock said. “Our ability to run slides and having kids that can hit a variety of sets also makes us less predictable — all of our hitters do a great job. Even though we have two D-1 attackers on our team, we have solid attackers in every position which still allows us to run a balanced attack.”
Following an Aug. 25 jamboree in Willard with Mt. Grove and Reeds Spring, the Lady Tigers will open their season Sep. 1 against Marshfield at home.