After a sluggish start in first set against Willard on Tuesday night, it was a pair of freshmen who sparked the veteran Ozark squad.
Freshmen Paige Perry and Kendra Sater made key plays at crucial times for the visiting Tigers as Ozark rallied to win the match and the Central Ozark Conference Large Division title, 25-16 and 25-17.
“We all wanted the conference championship really bad,” Perry said. “We went undefeated and we’re really excited about it.”
Willard ran off four straight points for an early 5-3 lead in the first game before Ozark could answer.
Sater temporarily stopped Willard’s run with a kill to cut the lead to 5-4, but Willard stretched its lead to three (8-5) before Perry put down her first kill, which narrowed the deficit to 8-6.
Ozark (23-6, 7-0) slowly chipped away at the lead and at Willard’s momentum until Perry gave Ozark the lead for good with her second kill of the first game for a 13-12 lead.
“Our young players, in the last couple of weeks, have become more comfortable with their roles and more confident and they are playing well when we need them the most here at the end of the season,” Ozark coach Becky Justis said.
Kills from senior Jackie Fugate, junior Ivy Reynolds and another from Perry, coupled with some passing and attack errors by Willard, gave Ozark a 23-15 lead and the comeback was complete.
“In the front half of both (sets), we controlled the ball, but when you give a team like Ozark a chance to make a few runs and you give them points from your errors, they will take advantage,” Willard coach Jamalee Hancock said.
“That’s thing we’ve been working on: ball control. And it crept in. We made too many mistakes on our side.”
Willard (25-5-1, 5-2) jumped to an early lead once again in the second set, 4-2, but a two kills from Sater with a kill from Fugate in between, tied the set at 4-all.
Kills from Perry tied the score at 7-all and again at 8-all before a kill from sophomore Ashley Ophoven gave Ozark the lead, 9-8.
“Ozark’s not been beat by anybody in the area, so we knew this would be a really tough match,” Hancock said. “We believe in ourselves, but Ozark is a team that will expose your errors.”
A kill from Reynolds, a block by Fugate and another kill by Ophoven gave Ozark the lead (13-10) and control of the match.
Perry led Ozark with seven kills, Ophoven had five kills and Sater had four kills in the win.
“I’m a setter, which is like the quarterback of the team, but I really like to hit too,” Sater said. “I don’t really think about the pressure, I just go out there and play hard.”
Perry said she remains focused on her play in order to avoid getting nervous or feeling the pressure of playing varsity.
“It’s really exciting as a freshman to make varsity and the older girls push us really hard,” Perry said.
“I feel like I need to give my best every game and show them that they picked me for a good reason.”
Twin sisters, seniors Brianna and Bridget Justis, led Ozark with 10 assists and 10 digs, respectively.
“Both Brianna and Bridget bring a lot to the court, not only with their passing, but with their leadership and their intensity,” Becky Justis said.
“They refuse to lose and that eventually rubs off on the other players. You need kids who have that and bring it to the court to win.”