For the past couple of seasons, youth has been one of the primary characteristics of the Houston High School volleyball team.
Not any more.
In 2021, it’s now more about experienced upperclassmen, as the Lady Tigers’ roster features seven seniors and eight juniors. The group got a taste of success last year, as Houston rode a late-season hot streak (including five straight wins in conference games) to finish 12-11 overall, marking the first time the squad had posted a record over .500 since 2010.
“The girls and coaches have high expectations for this season,” said head coach Loran Richardson (in her sixth season leading the program). “We ended the season really strong last year and had a great summer. This has given the girls confidence going into this year.
“I expect us to be competing for the conference and district titles and we have a great chance of succeeding. We’ve got to compete day in and day out, both in practice and games, in order to reach that goal.”
The Lady Tigers have all of last season’s starters returning. Helping lead the way in 2021 are senior Hannah Dzurick at setter (who earned first team All-Conference and All-District recognition), junior Olivia Crites at middle hitter (second team All-District and All-Conference honorable mention) and sophomore Angie Smith at left outside hitter (second team All-Conference and All-District).
“All three have had great summers and I expect them to be even better this year,” Richardson said. “Hannah is such a smart setter, while Angie and Olivia are quick on offense and are hard to stop.”
Senior Mali Brookshire (second team All-Conference in 2020) returns as Houston’s libero. “She has already improved her quickness on defense,” Richardson said, “and she solidifies our passing game.”
At 6-feet tall, senior Sarah Purcell returns at right outside hitter.
“She looked strong this summer and is a big block on the right side,” Richardson said. “She has taken her motivation and attitude to a new level and I expect it to reflect on the court.”
Sophomore Kelsey Pritchett, another 6-footer, will once again patrol the middle, along with the 5-10 Crites.
“Kelsey has looked so strong all summer at the net and will definitely intimidate some of our opponents,” Richardson said.
Junior setter Aliyah Walker sustained a hand injury at the beginning of the summer and is working her way back to 100-percent, while senior Mackenzie Holder is back to share outside hitter duties after missing part of the 2020 season with a knee injury.
“Aliyah is a quick setter on the court for us,” Richardson said, “and I expect Mackenzie to return looking as strong as she did pre-injury.”
Junior Makenzi Arthur is moving up from JV for the Lady Tigers.
“She played setter for us all summer but is a great outside hitter,” Richardson said, “and I expect her to have a breakout junior season.”
Other players who Richardson expects to play important roles are junior Logynn Foster (a transfer from Mountain Grove) and senior defensive specialists Paige Dennis and Jordyn Lay. Senior Lili Amick recently had knee surgery.
“But she’s still a senior leader for us,” Richardson said.
Four other juniors could see some time off the bench: Mackenzie Bryan, Madi Reed, Gracie Tottingham and Jazmine Johnson.
“We have a lot of depth,” Richardson said. “I feel confident that I could put any of these girls in and it would be a seamless transition.”
Richardson looks forward to coaching a team with players she’s raised for a long time.
“Experience is a big strength for us this year,” she said. “We return all of our starters and they’ve each improved in different ways. They’ve matured and have learned how to handle tough situations in a better way. I’m proud of the way they have mentored each other and the underclassmen so far this year.
“It’s only going to get better from here.”
Houston will take part in a preseason jamboree next Thursday (Aug. 26) at Cabool, also including Willow Springs. The Lady Tigers open the campaign Tuesday, Aug. 31 with a home game against county rival Licking.
With talent and experience not lacking, Richardson sees attitude as a key to her team reaching its goals.
“We’ve got to stay focused on improving and fighting each day,” she said. “If we get caught up in worrying about little things or getting complacent, we won’t be where we need to be. These girls do a great job supporting each other and pushing each other on the court. If we continue with that mindset, we will put ourselves in a great position.”
Dzurick enters the season following the recent loss of her father, Jon.
“We want to continue to ask people to pray for Hannah and the Dzurick family as we rally around them this season,” Richardson said.