The big stage brings out the best in Julia McCown.
“It seems to be that way,” Ozark coach Adeanna Brewer said of her senior middle hitter. “Every big game we have played in, Julia has stepped up and says, ‘Okay, I’m going to go off in this game.’ That’s a competitor. Kudos to her for doing so.”
McCown was off and going from the first point to the finish Wednesday. Fittingly, she delivered the coup de grace with an authoritative kill to complete the Lady Tigers’ 25-20, 25-21 victory over Nixa in the Class 4 District 10 championship.
McCown didn’t simply want a win, she wanted a sweep and was determined not to follow the trend of Ozark’s two regular-season wins over Nixa. The Lady Eagles won the opening set of each match, before the Lady Tigers had to come back to take the next two.
“We didn’t want to drop a set tonight,” McCown said. “That’s what we planned on doing. We’ve worked on being more consistent. We wanted to keep the lead the entire time. That’s what we were able to do.”
McCown was dominant no mater which side of the net the ball was on. She posted nine kills and five blocks.
“When Julia decides to turn it on, our team is really good,” Brewer said. “We have to keep her in that mindset and have the mentality to, ‘Go off,’ as she says. That will determine our level of play. Not only does she score points, it makes everyone around her elevate their play.”
“We expect that out of her every time,” setter Kennedee Anderson added. “She’s our biggest hitter and middle is a hard position. But we know we can expect her to block and do all the things she can do.”
Nixa coach Annie Zimmerman related her players at times would do everything right against McCown and still not be able to stop her.
“We would get our block established and be where we wanted to be,” Zimmerman said. “She would go right over the top of us. When they get a good pass and Kennedee is able to get Julia a good set, it’s really hard to stop them.”
Anderson was able to spread the wealth on her way to 30 assists. Katie Vorhies recorded 16 kills and Ceci Westfall added five.
Nixa rallied from deficits of 6-1 and 14-7 in the second set to pull within one, 20-19, and McCown was sitting out her usual rotations. Westfall, playing against many of her club-ball teammates, responded with two all-too important kills down the stretch.
“Julia and Katie are big point-makers and we’re fortunate to have them,” Westfall said. “We’re lucky to get a lot of reps when they aren’t in and our coaches give us a lot of confidence, no matter who we are.
"There were points tonight in which there were crazy digs going back and forth and the crowd was going crazy, it was so much fun being in that environment," Westfall added. "I loved it.”
“Ceci stepped up and scored timely kills,” Brewer said. “I was very proud of her play. Teams know that Julia and Katie are going to get kills because they are such good attackers. So, it’s really nice to have someone step up in those other three rotations when they aren’t in the front row.”
For Westfall, it was a rewarding night. She’s been on the comeback trail since last July, when she suffered a stress fracture to her right foot and was out of action for 10 weeks.
“I’ve had a lot of angst,” Westfall said. “I’d never had an injury before and it was kind of random and slow-progressing, not like the usual stress fracture. I worked through it. I worked hard in my therapy and feel 100 percent now.”
Nixa proved persistent, as well, particularly in the second set. Down 14-7, the Lady Eagles went on a 12-6 run.
“I’m so proud of my kids for chipping away at that lead,” Zimmerman said. “They never stopped fighting and were constantly looking for different ways to score. When things weren’t going our way, they were looking for another way to make it happen.”
Jordan Collard showed off her many talents while netting eight kills.
“Sometimes we take for granted how unbelievably athletic she is,” Zimmerman said. “She gets the assignment of being matched up with the opposing team’s best middle. Usually, they are much bigger than her and the middles we played tonight are very physical. The fact that at 5-foot-8 she can hold her ground and do the things she does speaks to the phenomenal athlete she is and how hard she works.”
Nixa (22-9-2) received two aces from Lauren Weber, 14 assists from Sydney Golden, 12 digs from Lexie Gregory and two blocks from Taylor Golmen.
Zimmerman will welcome back next year the great majority of her roster.
“Already, we’re looking forward to coming back to work next spring and summer,” Zimmerman said. “Our junior class has a lot of varsity experience under their belts. I’m excited to see them use that experience and mentor the younger players in our program.
“We have a lot of great days of volleyball ahead of us.”
Ozark (29-4-1) upped its streak of District championships to 10. Maintaining that streak has been a heavy burden for the Lady Tigers. Brewer and her staff did their best beforehand to keep their players from feeling overwhelmed.
“For this team, if you can take their minds off the pressure and environment, you can get them dialed into each other and execute,” Brewer said. "We executed all our X’s and O’x well tonight.”
The program’s success will continue to serve as a great motivator, as Ozark moves on to Sectionals and possibly the Quarterfinal round, all at Willard on Saturday. The Lady Tigers will face Willard at noon.
Brewer’s bunch will also try to continue Ozark’s uncanny success in the Sectional and Quarterfinal rounds. The Lady Tigers will aim to up their program’s streak of Final Four appearances to 10, as well.
“We try to keep going what the generations before us did,” Anderson said. “We want to make them proud and make ourselves proud. We know we’re good enough to go back to State.”