After one set, the Liberty girls volleyball team seemed well on its way to an easy victory Saturday afternoon at the Missouri state high school volleyball championships.
But a tournament-tested team soon turned the tide.
Ozark rallied from a first-set loss and stunned top-ranked Liberty with consecutive wins and claimed third place in the Class 4 tournament at the Show Me Center. Ozark, 34-6, ranked third coming into the weekend in Class 4, but bounced back from a 25-9 loss in Saturday’s opening set to win consecutive games 25-23, 25-15 and claim its fifth consecutive third-place Class 4 finish.
“We’ve got high expectations, of course we want our team to come out on top,” said Liberty coach April Fleming, whose squad finished 2-4 in pool play on Friday to relegate the Blue Jays to the third-place contest. “While it is disappointing for the girls and for us coaches, we can still hold our heads up high knowing we accomplished something that has never happened in the history of our school.”
Liberty’s first trip to the state tournament had its share of pratfalls, but a 25-9 win in Saturday’s opening set seemed to salve Friday’s wounds. Senior outside hitter Madison Duello, who led the Blue Jays with 19 kills in the match, including five in the first set, teamed with Morgan Fleming (four kills) to completely dominate play at the net early.
“In the first game, (Ozark) wasn’t putting a lot of pressure on us to make plays,” coach Fleming said. “Their offense wasn’t scoring points and we were doing a really good job at the net. I think the difference in that second and third game was that they could run their offense the way that they wanted.”
Ozark was admittedly hungover after dropping a one-game playoff late Friday to St. Joseph’s Academy to fall to Saturday’s third-place game.
“We were just shot,” said Ozark head coach Adeana Brewer. “Our best wasn’t good enough (Friday) night, and that was just hard for us to overcome. And that was evident in the first set.
“But they stood back up, and they were able to come away with a victory.”
The key, Liberty’s coach admitted, was Ozark scoring when Duello rotated to the back row.
“You’ve got to get (Duello) in the front row, and we weren’t able to do that,” Fleming said. “Morgan was scoring points and she was swinging well at the beginning, but the ball didn’t bounce our way in the second and third (sets).”
After the first set, Morgan Fleming was limited to just one kill the remainder of the match. That allowed the Tigers to concentrate their defensive effort on Duello.
“She is a very good hitter,” said Ozark senior outside hitter Ashley Ophoven, a Drury College recruit who finished with nine kills. “In that first set, we weren’t blocking her very well and she was just getting kill after kill. We knew in the second set we were gonna have to be on her, and if that meant cheating on her and leaving the other hitters one-on-one, fine. We just knew we had to be on her.”
Duello was gracious in her assessment of Ozark’s comeback.
“I’ll give it to them. They came back and played amazing,” Duello said. “We could have played better, but I’m proud of how we played. It’s not the result we wanted, but I’m happy.”
Liberty senior Lauren Petersen, who notched 24 assists and added seven defensive digs, said through tears that the weekend’s experience was one she would never forget, adding she hopes her fellow seniors have set the bar for Liberty teams that follow.
“This team has a lot of potential, and we knew that from the beginning,” Peterson said. “I’m more than proud to be on this team, to be a part of it.”
St. Pius X loses
With a third-place finish at the Class 3 Missouri state high school girls volleyball championships within their grasp, the St. Pius X Warriors simply couldn’t close the deal.
The result was a 25-20, 25-22 loss to St. Pius X of Festus in the third-place game.
The Warriors were unable to hold onto leads in both sets of Saturday’s games against their sister school from the southeast part of the state and were forced to settle for a fourth-place finish.
St. Pius, 29-8-4, was admittedly down after finishing 1-5 in Friday’s pool play.
“I think after that first (day) their confidence level was down a bit,” said Warriors coach Krista Daniels. “But then we got it back at the end of the night (winning their final game) and I was hoping that would carry over to (Saturday).”
It did, but just for a short time. The Warriors were down 5-1 early in Saturday’s first set, then rallied to tie the score 5-5 on their way to a 13-7 lead.
But Festus, 33-7-2, came back with a 15-7 run to close the set and head into the second set with a lead.
“That was important for our confidence,” Festus coach Dustin Cutts admitted, “to head into that second (set) knowing that we were able to compete and win as long as we played hard and played our game.”
The Warriors again led in the second set, enjoying a 19-14 advantage before Festus rallied to knot the score at 22. A key kill from Festus sophomore Elle Russell through a twin block by the Warriors’ front line was the spark for Festus’ three-point run to win the match.
“I told them all weekend long you can’t tip against these teams continuously,” said Daniels, admitting her squad needed to be more aggressive offensively. “That’s gonna just let them fire away at us, and it kind of ended that way. Especially when you don’t have the first game put away, and you already got that one loss, sometimes you get to the point where you’re playing safe, and not being aggressive. That kind of hurt us towards the end.
“But all in all, I’m still proud of the girls. To take it to this point, that’s a huge accomplishment. Especially for the seniors, to (play in the state tournament) all four years, it’s a great accomplishment.”
Those seniors — the Warriors have four — helped continue a tradition that has seen the school compete at the state tournament in 14 of the last 16 seasons.
“It’s really amazing,” said senior outside hitter Sarah Schiesl, who led the Warriors with 10 kills in her third consecutive trip to the state tournament. “It’s like the most exciting thing that’s ever happened. I really hope for the future that they can keep the run going.”