Lauren Brice fittingly experienced the kind of fulfillment that has been four years in the making for her on Ozark’s ‘Senior Night’ Tuesday.

Brice banged out a career-high three hits in the Lady Tigers’ 12-3 triumph over Branson in the COC opener for both teams

All three of Brice’s hits were line drives. The right-handed hitting second baseman’s first at-bat in which she ripped a single to right field served as a springboard on the night for her.

“We’ve been working in practices on hitting the outside pitch. That’s where we’ve been struggling,” Brice said. “I really wanted to work on driving the ball the other way. Tonight, I finally felt that click and saw the adjustment in my hitting. There’s a lot of satisfaction from working so hard to make an adjustment.

"Once I got that first hit, my attitude was so much better for my other at-bats," she added. "I was excited every at-bat." 

Brice ripped the ball wherever it was pitched. She later doubled to left field and singled to left-center.

“She hit the ball hard and did a good job placing the ball,” coach Jimmy Nimmo said. “We’ve always believed in her ability to hit. It’s just been a matter of building that confidence and carrying it over from a practice setting to games.”

Ozark (2-4) and Branson (3-3) were tied at 2-all through four frames, before third baseman Emily Schmucker ignited the Lady Tigers’ late charge. She drove in their first four runs with a pair of hits. 

Schmucker is proving her worth as Ozark's No. 3 hitter.

“In our first few games, we struggled with leaving runners on base,” Schmucker said, referring to Ozark’s 0-4 start. “When I was at-bat with runners on base today, I knew I had to get the job done.” 

“Emily has been our RBI-producer. She’s had timely hits,” Nimmo said. “What I like from her tonight is she hit the ball hard and used the right side of the field.” 

Schmucker also showed she can bunt. In the sixth inning with runners on second and third, she reached on a bunt single.

“It surprised me (Nimmo) gave me a signal for a drag,” Schmucker said. “But I knew Athena (Andrews) got that signal earlier in the game and got on base, so I figured I would just do what she did. I kind of wanted to hit because I had hit good my first few at-bats. But any way I can get on base and move the runners, I’m ready to do it.”

“I like the small game. We like to take advantage of any opportunities we have,” Nimmo said. “I like the long game, too.” 

Ozark welcomed back Kenna Mayfield in center and Brooklyn Hasler at first base. They had missed the last two weeks per MSHSAA guidelines while being quarantined.

Winning pitcher Hattie Depee, nursing an ankle injury, allowed six hits.

Brice, Depee, Andrews, left fielder Maddi Spies, catcher Raegan Dickinson and right fielder Chloe Garrison — all starters — sported wide smiles and tears during ‘Senior Night’ festivities.

“Sometimes we take for granted the four years we have here,” Brice said. “It’s sad looking back that there were some days I took it for granted. But all these girls have stuck with me through everything. I can’t ask for better teammates. It was amazing the energy all of the girls had today. We all had each other’s back.”

Next up for Ozark is a trip Thursday to defending COC champion Webb City (7-0).

“Webb City has it on both sides. They have good pitching, good defense and always score a bunch of run,” Nimmo said. “We’ll have to be at our best. Hattie has found a good groove on the rubber. If we keep the ball down, work the zone well and score some runs, that will give us a chance.”

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