With one win and one loss on their home court last week, the Houston High School Volleyball Lady Tigers reached one of their goals for the 2021 season and fell short of another.

When Houston beat Salem in straight sets in a Tuesday game in the new HHS gym, the victory competed an undefeated 7-0 run through the South Central Association scheduled and secured sole possession of the conference championship. But the Lady Tigers then fell 3-1 to Liberty on Saturday in a Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 9 Tournament semifinal game, and the season came to an end minus a district crown.

BIG WIN IN A BIG GAME

In the victory over Salem, the host Lady Tigers downed the visiting Lady Tigers 25-15, 25-18, 25-6. The sweep was Houston’s 11th in best-of-5 games this year.

The host Lady Tigers got their potent offense rolling early in the first set and built a commanding 17-7 lead on an ace by senior Hannah Dzurick. A short time later, Dzurick scored the final point in the set with a little soft shot into an opening.

In the second set, the score was tied at 14-all as both teams’ defenses came up with play after play to regain possession of the ball.

But the Lady Tigers went on a 7-2 run and held a 21-16 advantage after an ace by sophomore outside hitter Angie Smith. Houston coasted to the set victory from there, scoring the 25th point on a wide hit by Salem.

The lopsided final set was highlighted by a dazzling offensive outburst by Dzurick, who scored almost at will by frequently finding holes in the visiting Lady Tigers’ defense and placing the ball into open space with a deadly combination of strength and a soft touch.

The game ended and the SCA title was Houston’s when Dzurick nailed a ball down the right sideline and it fell untouched.

Lady Tigers players and head coach Loran Richardson celebrate a sweep over Salem that clinched the SCA championship on Tuesday of last week in the new HHS gym. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

Dzurick finished with a season-high 17 kills (including a whopping 8 in the third set) and put up a game-high 15 assists. She also scored several other points in the final set on balls that Salem defenders touched but couldn’t handle.

Smith had another well-rounded outing, recording 14 kills, 15 digs and 5 aces, while senior libero Mali Brookshire had a game-high 21 digs. Junior middle hitter Olivia Crites had 8 kills for the Lady Tigers, while 6-foot senior Sarah Purcell and 6-foot sophomore Kelsey Pritchett recorded 2 blocks apiece.

“We really played well the whole match,” Richardson said. “There are always a few rough spots in a game – volleyball is so momentum-based – but we really put together a full, well-played match. We played aggressive at the net and made some great digs and saves on the back row.

“It’s a good feeling when it just clicks.”

Dzurick said her ability to control the ball’s flight is no accident.

“I study the game,” she said. “Watching film lets me know where the open spots are. During the game, I put myself in their shoes. For example, I place the ball where I wouldn’t be as a defender. Once you place the ball there a couple times, they start to read that spot so you put the ball in a different spot.

“It’s a mental game.”

BIG CROWD, BIG GAME

In the Lady Tigers’ district playoff loss, second-seeded Houston outlasted No. 3 Liberty in a marathon first set, winning 28-26 in overtime.

But the Lady Eagles then took the next three sets, tying the game with a 25-21 win in the second, taking the lead with a 25-16 victory in the third and then dispatching the Lady Tigers with an overtime win in the fourth set, 26-24.

The defeat snapped Houston’s 6-game winning streak, and the result in the second set ended a string of 15 consecutive set victories.

Houston senior Sarah Purcell (28) leaps to defend against a hit by Liberty senior Lexi Shumpert during the fourth set of a Class 2 District 9 Tournament game last Saturday in the new HHS gym. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

A big crowd (including large gatherings from both communities) created high-decibel noise at many junctures of the contest. That was especially true during the final moments of the fourth set, when each set of fans would scream wildly after each amazing dig or crucial point.

After trailing 11-4 early in the set, Houston staged a spirited comeback in an attempt to force a fifth and deciding set. Still behind at 24-21 and clinging to life, the Lady Tigers scored 3 straight points and sent the home crowd into a frenzy by winning an intense marathon rally to tie the score at 24-all. But the Lady Eagles stood strong and went on to score the final 2 points of the game, finishing Houston’s season on a point by freshman outside hitter Korie Lind.

The Lady Eagles displayed the same sort of defensive effort that had carried the Lady Tigers in many outings this season, as they returned many hard-to-get balls and got hands on numerous hits at the net throughout the battle. Led by junior middle hitter Bre Daniels and senior setter Lexi Shumpert, Liberty’s offense constantly found ways to score with a variety of hard-hit or well-placed shots.

“Overall, we didn’t play badly,” Richardson said. “We played pretty tough in the first set and most of the fourth set, but we just didn’t play consistently enough to pull out the win. Our aggressiveness and communication disappeared during the second and third sets and we couldn’t pull ourselves out of it.

“Liberty was definitely more consistent and just didn’t make a lot of mistakes.” 

Smith smacked 16 kills and had 21 digs in the contest, while Crites had 13 kills. Dzurick recorded 21 assists and 3 aces, while Brookshire had 28 digs and junior Aliyah Walker contributed 19 assists.

HHS junior middle hitter Olivia Crites leaps to hit a ball past Liberty defenders Kallee McDaniel (11) and Kenzie Daniels during a district tournament game last Saturday in Houston. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

Houston’s front line came up big on several occasions in the tightly-contested game, and Dzurick and Pritchett each finished with 3 blocks while Crites had 2.

With the win, Liberty avenged a Sept. 28 home loss to the Lady Tigers and advanced to face Licking (30-5) in Monday’s district championship game. The Lady Eagles swept that matchup 3-0 to earn the district championship and a berth in the state playoffs.

Liberty (24-10-1) will take on Pleasant Hope in the first round on Saturday (Oct. 30).

Licking had earned a spot in the district final by sweeping Thayer in the other semifinal contest. Thayer made the semifinals with a 3-0 win over Mansfield in a play-in game last Thursday.

The Lady Tigers finished the season with an overall record of 26-6-2.

“As a whole, these girls had a fantastic year,” Richardson said. “Winning the conference outright and a 26-win season is nothing to hang our heads about. Even when we would get down in the first set, the girls were able to turn it around in most of our matches.

“I’m super proud of the things they accomplished. I hope they all can say they gave everything they had every game.” 

Richardson credited assistant coaches Jodie Tottingham and Tory Wade for helping make it all happen.

“They did a fantastic job teaching the game and seeing weaknesses in our opponents,” Richardson said. “They are a huge part of our success.”

Richardson also credited Houston Middle School coaches Juli Yardley and Samantha Bathon for helping build a sustainable program.

“They do a great job preparing the girls for high school and teaching them skills,” Richardson said. 

Houston junior Makenzi Arthur (5) leaps to hit a ball past Salem junior Malerie Workman (4) during the second set of the Lady Tigers’ sweep in an SCA game last week in the new HHS gym.

Saturday’s game was the last in the careers of seniors Brookshire, Dzurick, Purcell, Jordyn Lay and Lili Amick.

“We wish them the best of luck next year,” Richardson said, “and we’re thankful for all they’ve given to the program for the last four years. It’s been a great season and I can’t wait to see what they do next year.”

The Lady Tigers topped the 20-win mark for the first time since 2007 and were SCA champs for the firs time since 2006.

“As a team, we have accomplished a lot,” Dzurick said. “It means a lot considering it was my last year. As a team, we could have gone further. It’s not how I wanted the season to end, but it was for sure one to remember.”

“We’re competitive – we wanted to win,” Brookshire said. “We grew as a team. While we didn’t meet all of our goals, we did win a conference championship which we are super proud of. I’m going to miss my coaches and I’m thankful for all they’ve done for me and this team.”

Richardson figures to have a well-equipped roster again in 2022.

“I’m thankful for all the support our school and community has given the girls this season,” she said. 

To view a photo gallery from the Lady Tigers’ district tournament contest (with the option to purchase photos), click here.

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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