Almost exactly a year later, Ozark’s Caroline Clifford still can remember the pain.
She was in the infancy of her sophomore season when a devastating knee injury in a home match against Kickapoo ended her season.
On Tuesday, Clifford was all smiles.
In only her third game back since tearing her ACL and meniscus, Clifford exorcised some demons and provided a big lift as Ozark beat host Kickapoo, 25-20, 25-16, on Tuesday night.
“It means more than the world to me to be playing again and it’s great to beat Kickapoo on their own floor,” Clifford said. “I don’t feel like I’m truly 100 percent, I’m about 85 percent of getting back to where I was.
“When you get that release paper from your doctor, you just want to go straight to the gym. So, it feels great to be back.”
The first set was close throughout as neither team could build a lead bigger than four points until Ozark stretched an 18-17 lead to 22-17 with kills from Clifford and sophomore Paige Perry.
“We had some weaknesses exposed earlier this season and we changed some things and now things are just flowing better,” Ozark coach Becky Justis said. “Tonight was a result of addressing those weaknesses.”
Clifford had five of her team-high 10 kills in the first set, but according to Justis, her leadership was just as important.
“She brings fire and grit and intensity to this team that we lost from last year,” Justis said. “She’s a little impatient. She really wants to be back to being a great player and she has to realize that she’s still a work in progress.
“With her making it through tonight, now all the worry is off her shoulders, and now you’re really going to see her blossom.”
The second set was just as close as the first, as Kickapoo jumped to an early 8-5 lead but couldn’t take control of the game.
Ozark (12-2) scored eight of the next 10 points to take a 13-10 lead with four kills from junior Ashley Ophoven, one from senior Ivy Reynolds and another from sophomore Kendra Sater.
Kickapoo (6-4-1) only trailed by four points late in the final set (17-13), but began making passing and attack errors that let Ozark pull away.
“It’s been a challenge for us to start a game strong, end a game strong and play a solid 25 points and that’s what we were focused on tonight,” Kickapoo coach Marci Johnson said.
“We started well, but we let a couple of errors pile up and that spread the score out and you can’t do that against a team like Ozark.
“We’ve just got to dig a little deeper and find that point or two to get us closer to home.”
Clifford and Ophoven finished with 10 kills each, junior Sasha Robinson had 15 assists and junior Bailey Baumann had 13 digs. Sater had 13 assists and 11 digs.
Sophomore Rachel Rippee led Kickapoo with 10 kills and two blocks.