By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — As they played their way through an absolute gauntlet of a schedule, Logan-Rogersville volleyball coach Emily Hutcheson kept reminding her team the games would prepare them for the kind of competition they would face at the end of the season.
Even if the losses piled up early in the year, the goal was for the Wildcats to experience what it took to close out games against some of the best teams in the state. And they don’t get much better than Springfield Catholic, which returned three all-state hitters from last season’s Final Four team, won 26 of its first 29 games and lost only six sets in the process.
But it’s the Wildcats who now find themselves in control of the race for the Big 8 East championship following a stunning 3-2 victory on Tuesday evening, as Logan-Rogersville rallied to win the final two sets and snapped Catholic’s 19-game home winning streak.
“You live for nights like tonight,” Hutcheson said. “I mean, that is just a great example of a great match, of competition, fight, grit, energy, passion. It was awesome.”
After dropping the opening set 22-25, the WIldcats opened the second with an 11-2 lead and cruised to a 25-15 victory. They carried that momentum into the third set and led 24-22, but couldn’t close out the Fightin’ Irish, who scored five of the next six points for a 27-25 win.
But Logan-Rogersville leaned on the lessons it learned in losses against WIllard, Nixa, Kickapoo and out-of-state teams like Bentonville (Arkansas) West and Olathe (Kansas) East, rebounding to take the fourth set 25-20 and force a winner-take-all fifth that was a race to 15.
The score was tied 14 times in that final set, with neither side leading by more than three at any time. That stretched the match even farther, with teams combining for 42 points in the set.
Logan-Rogersville had four chances to win the match, only for Catholic to overcome each of them. The Fightin’ Irish then had two match points of their own, but Logan-Rogersville refused to back down after coming so far and scored the final three points in a 22-20 win.
“We have gone and battled with lots of teams this year and down the stretch I just kept reminding them ‘You are fighters. You are competitive. You know how to play with grit and you’ve been here before,’” Hutcheson said. “‘Let’s finish. Let’s do it.’ And they did. It was awesome.”
Logan-Rogersville improved to a deceptive 14-8-1, given that most of its losses are to out-of-class opponents. The Wildcats are also 5-0 in the Big 8 East and will win the conference title outright if they are able to defeat Reeds Spring on Thursday evening.
Springfield Catholic fell to 26-3-1 (3-1) and would need Logan-Rogersville to lose that game and win out to share the conference title. All but one of their 26 wins had come via shutout, with all-state hitters Grace O’Reilly, Hallie Cook and Cherie Sabini leading the attack.
Tuesday’s game was the first time any of Catholic’s 30 matches had gone to five sets.
“We found shots that were open for us,” Hutcheson said. “We worked on a lot of different routes offensively. We knew that we had to make the middles move. We knew that we had to protect our court against Grace O’Reilly and we knew that Hallie Cook was going to do a great job for them of putting the ball in play — and she hits a heavy ball. Our game plan was just dig to the well, play our game and keep the pressure on their side.”
That pressure started at the net, where senior middle hitter Katelyn Crossland recorded a team-high eight blocks. Junior libero Natalie Scott paced the Wildcats with 34 digs.
“Honestly, it was just putting trust into each other and reading the ball off the block and knowing that our blockers were going to get there as much as they could,” Scott said. “We just had to read around it and I think that tonight was one of our best nights on defense. We hustled. We read the ball very well.”
So did the offense, as setter Lauren Tyler set up a balanced attack with 49 assists. Brianna Linehan and Olivia Frieze tied for the team lead with 15 kills apiece.
The timing of the victory couldn’t be better for the Wildcats, who had their streak of eight consecutive district championships snapped last season. Knocking off a bona fide state title contender at home is a huge momentum boost as the teams head into the postseason.
“If everybody is on the same page and we’re fighting the same fight, the world is our oyster,” Hutcheson said. “Anything can happen. The sky is the limit with this group.”
The timing could also be beneficial for Springfield Catholic, which had emerged from every other challenge it faced this season relatively unscathed. As the Fightin’ Irish also prepare to begin a playoff run, they now know the areas to address to prevent a season-ending loss.
“We don’t cover our hitters very well,” Catholic coach Dan Evans said. “Some of that’s because we’re used to our hitters going up and just putting the ball down on the floor. Against teams that block good — and Rogersville is a very good blocking team — if you don’t do those little things, you catch yourself standing around watching instead of playing defense. I think right now, offensively, we’re fine. But we haven’t passed as good as we should. We just have to put all of those things together. Against average teams, you can dig a hole sometimes and crawl back out. But against teams like Rogersville, you really can’t.”
Evans said the WIldcats were able to exploit weaknesses “pretty much the entire night” and coaches weren’t able to adjust to it. But the Irish will regroup and refocus as they look to win a second straight district championship, even if the conference may now be out of reach.
“We have a lot of big games coming up,” Evans said. “It’s OK to be sad for a little bit. I’ve told teams for several decades if you don’t like the way you feel, then let’s do something to change the outcome next time.”