Houston sophomore Angie smith leaps to hit a ball past Ava defenders Zoe Strong (14) and Sara Mendel during the second set of the Lady Tigers' sweep in an SCA game Tuesday in the new gym. Credit: DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

It’s not over yet, but the 2021 season has already been one to remember for the Houston High School volleyball team.

With a 3-0 victory over Willow Springs in a South Central Association game Thursday in the new HHS gym, the Lady Tigers clinched at least a share of this year’s conference championship. The sweep (25-18, 25-15, 25-13) was Houston’s ninth in best-of-5 contests this season and lifted the team’s record 25-5-2 overall and 6-0 in SCA play.

If the Lady Tigers beat Salem in Tuesday’s regular season finale (also at home), they’ll be outright winners of the league title.

“I’m super proud of the girls and coaches for the success we have achieved this year,” said HHS head coach Loran Richardson. “They have all worked so hard to get where they are and it has paid off. I know they are capable of so much more; now we’ve got to go out and take advantage of the opportunity we have.”

In the win over Willow Springs, Houston’s offense was led by sophomore outside hitter Angie Smith with 9 kills and junior middle hitter Olivia Crites with 8, while senior setter Hannah Dzurick delivered a season-high 7 aces and put up 16 assists. Smith also had 11 digs and senior libero Mali Brookshire had 9, while the 5-11 Crites scored on 2 blocks.

HHS senior Hannah Dzurick sends a leaping serve during the second set of the Lady Tigers’ sweep over Ava in an SCA game Tuesday in the new gym. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

On Tuesday of this week, the Lady Tigers began a flurry of three SCA home games to finish the regular season by sweeping Ava, 25-11, 25-17, 25-18.

Houston had little trouble in taking the first set, but went a bit cold in the second set. The visiting Lady Bears took advantage of their hosts lull by erasing most of a 9-point deficit and trail by only 2 at 18-16.

But the Lady Tigers found their rhythm again and went on a 7-1 run, closing out the set with a kill by junior outside hitter Makenzi Arthur.

Ava jumped out to a 4-0 at the outset of the third set, but Houston responded by taking commanding 13-7 advantage with a 13-3 run capped off with a kill by Dzurick. The sweep was complete moments later when Dzurick delivered another big kill.

Dzurick finished the game with 14 kills and 17 assists. Smith also slammed 14 kills and added a season-high 22 digs and 2 aces.

Junior Logynn Foster had 14 assists and 2 aces for Houston, while junior Aliyah Walker contributed 13 assists and Crites was credited with a pair of blocks.

“Overall, we played really well,” Richardson said. “We had a couple breakdowns in execution, but we handled it well and were able to fix the issues. Our goal is to keep getting stronger as we go into districts next week.”

HHS junior Olivia Crites leaps to hit a ball past Ava senior defenders Hannah Evans (4) and Baylan Alexander (12) during the second set of the Lady Tigers’ sweep in an SCA game Tuesday in the new gym. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

With a win Thursday at Liberty, Mountain Grove became the only 1-loss team left in the SCA. The Lady Panthers (18-8, 5-1 SCA) travel to Thayer Tuesday; if they win and Houston falls to Salem, they would earn a share the SCA crown.

“The girls said in the locker room how they don’t want to share, they want it outright,” Richardson said. “That’s our goal for Tuesday.”

With the most important games of the season looming, Crites and Dzurick said the Lady Tigers’ mental approach is crucial to their success.

“Our team still has weaknesses and obstacles we will improve upon,” Crites said, “but the most important thing this late in the season is our mindset. With a winning mindset and hard work, we can go even further than districts.”

“Hard work and discipline pays off,” Dzurick said. “We have the ability to go far if we work together as a team and put our differences aside. Mindset is key. We have to come into every game thinking anything is possible even if there is a team out there with more ability.

“If we work together and keep our heads up we will continue to grow and beat the unexpected teams.”

The Salem game will feature a cancer awareness theme, including a 50/50 raffle with proceeds going to the family of long-time Houston coach Boulder McKinney and his wife, Toni, who has been being treated for cancer.

The five-team Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 District 9 Tournament is set for next week inside the new HHS gym.

Houston is seeded second in the bracket and will face No. 3 Liberty in a semifinal contest at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. Top-seeded Licking will take on either No. 4 Mansfield or No. 5 Thayer in the other semifinal at 3 p.m., and the district championship game is set for 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25.

To view a photo gallery from the Ava game (with the option to purchase photos), click here.

Lady Tigers players celebrate a point in their win Tuesday over Ava. The squad is one win away from securing the outright SCA championship. DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

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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