So far, so good.

Coming into the 2021 season, players and coaches on the Houston High School volleyball team had high expectations for the results they would produce.

The squad did nothing to diminish those expectations in a pair of home games this week, winning twice in straight sets on their home floor in Hiett Gymnasium. The Lady Tigers got the season rolling with a huge win Tuesday over county rival Licking, 25-15, 25-23 and 25-22, and then followed up by dispatching Cuba on Thursday, 25-19, 25-20, 25-14. 

“I feel like the girls are confident and hungry for competition,” said HHS head coach Loran Richardson. “The girls know we still have work to do, but they know they can compete with anyone.”

‘ENERGY AND COMPETITIVENESS’ LEADS TO BIG WIN

After dropping the first set by 10 points, the deep and talented Licking team – led by the efforts of 6-foot junior Abbie Sullins ­– kept things close throughout the next two sets. But the Lady Wildcats led only once in the game, going ahead 3-1 early in the second set.

Meanwhile, the Lady Tigers maintained focus in several pressure-packed situations.

“We’ve been working on our first-ball side-out when receiving, and it paid off,” Richardson said. “We never let them go on any big runs. We were able to side-out quickly and get the momentum back.”

With the score at 24-23 in the back-and-forth second set, the Lady Tigers put it away with a well-placed tip shot for a point by senior setter Hannah Dzurick. Then in the third set, Houston finished the sweep with a big kill by sophomore outside hitter Angie Smith.

The Lady Tigers helped their cause with a huge serving advantage, recording 9 aces while committing only 2 service errors.

Houston junior Olivia Crites (27) leaps to hit a ball past Licking defender Kylie Taylor during the second set of the Lady Tigers’ season-opening win Tuesday night in Hiett Gymnasium.

Houston’s defense came up big, too, with players running, reaching and diving to amass a whopping 70 digs.

“Our defense played great,” Richardson said.

Smith had a huge night, with 13 kills, 5 aces, 20 digs and a robust .417 hitting percentage. Dzurick finished with 8 kills, 14 assists and 15 digs, while 5-11 sophomore middle hitter Olivia Crites smacked 7 kills and recorded 3 aces.

Senior libero Mali Brookshire had 16 digs and a 2.32 passing rating for Houston, while 6-foot sophomore middle hitter Kelsey Pritchett was credited with 2 blocks.

“It feels great!” Richardson said after the win. “I’m so proud of the girls’ energy and competitiveness.”

The Lady Tigers roster has transformed this season into a group largely made up of experienced players, including a host of juniors who were still underclassmen in 2020.

“I think just having a year of varsity under their belts from last year and all summer has given those younger girls a ton of confidence,” Richardson said. “Now they understand the speed of the game and are really putting it together.”

Houston’s front line (featuring several long and athletic players) constantly made it hard for the Lady Wildcats to find openings.

HHS sophomore Kelsey Pritchett (16) and senior Hannah Dzurick rise at the net to defend against a hit by Licking junior Maci Sparks during the first set of the Lady Tigers’ season-opening win Tuesday night in Hiett Gymnasium. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

“We definitely have the size and ability to dominate the net,” Richardson said. “We only had 4 kill blocks last night, but we had a ton of blocks Licking covered up, and a lot of good touches. They did a great job funneling the ball to our defense as well.”

The Lady Wildcats were fresh off of a 3-1 victory over Liberty Monday in Mountain View.

“It was a big win for us,” Brookshire said. “I have confidence that if we play as a team and keep working hard, we’ll be very successful.”

“I think one of the best parts was the energy on the floor and in the gym,” Richardson said. “We didn’t let mistakes get us down and we were able to push through rough patches. We’ve always got things we need to improve on, but if we keep working those things, we’ll be hard to stop as the season goes on.”

Richardson said assistant coaches Jodie Tottingham and Tory Wade played a significant role in the victory.

“I’m thankful for assistant coaches who do a great job watching for weaknesses in the other team and helping the girls find holes,” she said. “Jodie and Tory both do a great job.”

Senior outside hitter Sarah Purcell said the result sends a message that the Lady Tigers mean business.

“It’s a big confidence boost and it shows everyone that we’re coming for them,” she said.

A WIN’S A WIN

While the Lady Tigers’ efforts in the victory over Cuba’s Lady Wildcats may not have been pretty the whole way through, they got the job done.

“We struggled at times,” Richardson said. “We just didn’t play our game most of the night. But I’m proud that even though the girls weren’t playing their best as a team, they still kept their composure and finished the game in 3.”

Dzurick delivered 6 aces and 22 assists in the win, while Crites walloped 11 kills and recorded a .455 hitting percentage.

HHS junior Logynn Foster sends a serve during the Lady Tigers’ win over Cuba Thursday in Hiett Gymnasium. EMILY HONEYCUTT | HOUSTON HERALD

Purcell and Smith each smacked 8 kills, while Crites and Pritchett had 3 blocks apiece. Smith  had 17 digs and junior Logynn Foster had 11 to help power Houston’s defense.

Richardson figures an ugly win presents a good way for a good team to identify thing to work on.

“We just need to learn from our mistakes,” she said, “and focus on what we can improve.”

Houston (2-0) has a pair of road games next week, traveling to Summersville on Tuesday (Sept. 7) to face yet another group of Lady Wildcats and heading for Mansfield Thursday for a matchup against the always-tough Lady Lions.

HHS senior Mali Brookshire leaps to hit a ball during the first set of the Lady Tigers’ season-opening win Tuesday night in Hiett Gymnasium. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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