Ozark turned to its young guns to reach its sixth consecutive volleyball final four.
Ozark defeated Willard in three sets Saturday in the state playoff quarterfinals to clinch a trip to the state championships in Cape Girardeau for the sixth time in a row. Willard won the first set 25-22, but the emergence of sophomore Macey Putt allowed Ozark to win the next sets 25-14, 25-16 to secure a 2-1 win.
As Willard tried to concentrate on blocking Missouri State-commit Paige Perry on the left side of Ozark’s formation, opportunities mounted for Ozark’s middle hitters. Putt finished the match with 13 kills and three blocks for points.
Putt said she wanted to get the comeback win for Ozark’s seniors, who are very familiar with going to the final four.
“Those seniors have been all four years and we wanted to keep that alive,” Putt said. “It’s nerve-racking but really exciting.”
Senior Kendra Sater notched 32 assists and six kills, feeding Putt at regular intervals.
“I loved getting the kills (Sater) was setting, we were all covering and it created a lot of energy,” Putt said.
Ozark coach Adeana Brewer was glad to see the sophomore step up in a playoff match.
“Macey Putt got in the offense and man, did she go off. We’ve got to have that offense next week from her, that’s probably her best game,” Brewer said. “That was huge. It was really good to see that from her.”
Willard used setter Makenzie Bouse as a second blocker on Perry. Bouse had 18 assists, three blocks and an ace in the final match of her high school career.
“She’s one of the most mentally tough kids,” Willard coach Jamalee Hancock said of Bouse. “I was a setter, so I’m always pretty hard on my setters. She has taken every ounce of coaching. That kid just takes and tries to do everything you ask.”
Senior Kara Finkbiner scored nine kills for Willard.
Brewer said Ozark’s players experienced the strange sense of being favored to win despite Willard’s stellar 31-4-1 record.
“Willard had so much energy, I mean they played phenomenal,” Brewer said. “I think sometimes our kids feel like, ‘oh, our back is against the wall, we’re supposed to be the favorite,’ and so they had a little bit of pressure.”
Juniors Ryley Thixton and Kaylan Smith had six kills apiece for Ozark. Perry managed nine kills in spite of Willard’s pesky blocking. Perry also scored two points from blocks.
Ozark holds the history of a being a perennial playoff team, though all but three of last season’s final four team graduated last spring. Ozark needed its unproven youngsters to reach the final four again.
“Even though we have a reputation, I feel like since we had so many new kids on our floor that it wasn’t expected, so it’s really great to be in a position where you’ve maybe surprised some people,” Brewer said. “The girls take a lot of pride in continuing tradition.”
Willard hopes to start a tradition of its own. The Tigers reached the state quarterfinals for the first time in 11 seasons, and for the first time as a Class 4 team.
“The last time we were here was in 2004,” Hancock said. “We wanted this one. We wanted to be in the final four; we really, truly believed we could.”
Ozark (32-5) competes for the Class 4 state championship at the Show-Me Center in Cape Girardeau Oct. 30-31. The Tigers will contend with St. Teresa’s Academy, St. Joseph’s Academy, and defending state champion Lafayette-Wildwood.