By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Ozark Lady Tigers enjoyed their most successful season since 2017 and this year’s version is the deepest in coach Chris Shull’s five years at the helm.
The Lady Tigers, who went 19-5 in 2017, finished 19-5-3 overall and ran the table in the Central Ozark Conference, going 8-0 to win their first league title since 2016, before falling to Kickapoo in the Class 4 District 5 Tournament final.
Eight key pieces to the COC championship team return this season, as the Lady Tigers will look to replace their leading scorer and four-year starter in goal.
• Alexis Solomon, senior goalkeeper, signed to play basketball (her first sport) at Lyon College. “Alexis will be replacing Laney Burks,” Shull said. “Alexis has an incredible rapport with the team and holds herself and her teammates accountable. She will surprise a lot of people this year.”
• Shaeley Combs, senior, multiple positions, signed to play soccer at Drury University. “Shaeley could literally play anywhere but goalkeeper on the field. She will adapt and excel in any position. Her quick decision-making and skill is on a high level. She is an explosive player that teams are going to have to handle. Look for her to have her best year.”
• Emma Burton, senior defender. “Emma has gone through adversity in her high school career including missing a year because of the COVID shutdown, and an injury. Still, she continues to battle, get better and dominate in her position. She is a good role model and a great leader who is very accepting of every teammate and makes them feel empowered. She has the greatest of character and will be missed when she graduates.”
• Molly Rushing, senior, multiple positions, earned Class 4 District 5 first-team and Second-Team All-COC honors. “Molly is also a player who could play any position. The best word to describe Molly is tough – physically tough as well as mentally tough. She has been a four-year starter and is looking to have her best year. She does not back down from anyone and she doesn’t shy away from a tackle. She puts her team first and a coach can only hope that her attitude is infectious and spreads throughout the team.”
• Annabelle Shuler, senior midfielder/forward, signed to play at Southwest Baptist University. “Coming off a season-ending injury, Annabelle looks to come back even stronger. She was very committed in the offseason with not only rehab but playing in the offseason. Annabelle is an attacking force on the field and the exciting part is that she is still getting better.”
• Audrey Carlton, sophomore defender, earned Class 4 Region 3, first-team all-district and all-conference honors. “Audrey’s play speaks for itself. She is an outstanding defender who is always dominating her zone. As a freshman, Audrey stood out from the first minute of play. She is coming off a great offseason and is a multi-sport athlete (softball). She is by far one of the most consistently strong players I have ever coached.”
• Natalie Morgan, sophomore midfielder, named first-team all-district and honorable mention all-conference. “Recently known for her home run this past fall to help lead her softball team to a district title, Natalie is the epitome of a multi-sport athlete. Although softball is her first sport, Natalie adds a dynamic presence in soccer. Her presence on the field alone makes our team better. In the most intense situations, Natalie actually feels right at home and excels during these times.”
• Addison Shuler, sophomore forward, was a first-team all-district and second-team all-conference selection. “Addison Shuler came out of nowhere last year and made her presence known. She was our second-leading scorer and looks to lead our attack this year. She is quiet off the field, but her play is nothing like her personality. Addison is strong on the ball and has a knack for finishing her chances on goal.”
Shull has several players he will be looking at to make an impact for the Lady Tigers this spring.
• Morgan Pickens, junior midfielder. “I am very excited this year to see how well Morgan does,” Shull said. “She has the potential to be one of the most dynamic players on our squad. Look for her to be the most improved player and take her game to the next level.”
• Kaylee Linnebur, junior forward. “Kaylee suffered a season-ending injury last year toward the beginning of last year. She is beloved by her teammates and such an asset to our team. I cannot imagine this team without her. She is the glue that holds us all together. She is a hard-nosed athlete who is physical and a finisher in and around the goal. The tougher the opponent, the better Kaylee plays. She will have her breakout year this season.”
• Kiara Holt, junior defender. “Kiara will have her best year yet. She is a shutdown defender who can also go forward, as she showed us last year. She is strong on the ball and can use both feet. She is a physical player who is not afraid to mix it up.”
• Claire Wheeler, senior defender. “Claire is a multi-sport athlete who is coming off a successful wrestling season as she qualified for state. She is planning on playing soccer and wrestling at the University of the Ozarks. Claire is a strong and versatile defender who is very experienced.”
• Chloe Kondracki, sophomore forward. “Chloe will bring so much to the offense this season. She is very skilled and can hunt for rebounds in and around the goal. She has a strong shot and can use both feet. She will gain defenses’ respect from the get-go.”
• Josi Van Riessen, junior midfielder. “Josi has a very high soccer IQ and can link the back line with the attack. She plays simple but is highly effective and makes us better. Look for her to have her best season.”
• Kathryn Dublin, senior midfielder. “Kathryn is new to the district and decided to go ahead and play her senior year. I have seen her play in the past and she stood out. She came from a great team and was well-coached. She works hard and she is establishing a strong rapport with the girls.”
Shull said there will be a lot of competition at each position, but it also is possible for a freshman or two to get varsity minutes from the beginning of the season.
There also will be a couple of newcomers to Shull’s coaching staff in Hayley Hunter and Abbey Sugrue.
Hunter and Sugrue are Ozark alumni and both have high school, club and college playing experience in addition to coaching experience.
“These coaches will uphold the integrity of the program, along with serving as outstanding mentors and role models for our young athletes,” Shull said. “The season hasn’t even started, and they have both done so much to ensure our girls will have the best season thus far.”
The Lady Tigers graduated four players who received postseason honors, including their top scorer and four-year starter at keeper.
• Madison Morgan earned first-team all-district and all-conference honors. “Madison will be missed. Her competitive nature was amazing. She was our leading scorer and was a tough player. She was a good leader as well.”
• Delaney Burks was named second-team all-state, all-region, first-team all-district and all-conference and MVP at Goalkeeper; now playing at Westminster College. “Her experience will be missed. She has been a starter for her entire high school career.”
• Trinity Schupp received all-academic, honorable mention all-district and all-conference honors. “Trinity is one of the best leaders I have ever coached. She was positive and held the standard for all our players. Every team needs a Trinity and she will be missed on and off the field.”
• Haley Mallonee was an all-district honorable mention and all-conference second team selection. “Haley took care of the ball. When a game plan was implemented or altered, I could always count on her to adjust and help those around her. She was very coachable and will be missed.”
The Lady Tigers will participate in a jamboree at Logan-Rogersville with Springfield Catholic on March 13 before opening the regular season on March 18 against Columbia Hickman and Waynesville in Columbia.
“This will be a close-knit team,” Shull said. “The chemistry in the offseason has been good and we are excited to get started. A coach always wants the ‘next squad to be better than the last one’ as we grow. Challenges will present themselves and it will be interesting to see how this squad will react.
“This will be our deepest team thus far, so the duals in practice will be a sight to see. Our goal is to compete and improve throughout the season. We want to be playing our best soccer by May.”