The Ozark-Nixa rivalry has helped produce two of the best setters in the state this season and fittingly they give each other an assist for spurring their development.
The Lady Tigers’ Reece Cook and the Lady Eagles’ Jacy Bray rank 1-2 in assists in Class 6 statewide, in accordance to teams who track their stats on MaxPreps.com.
Cook entered the start of Districts over the weekend with 914 assists and Bray had 890.
Cook and Bray thrive off of competing against one another. They’ll be on opposite sides of the net tonight, as Ozark and Nixa tangle in a Class 5 District 6 semifinal at 6:30 at Waynesville.
“Knowing she's right down the street at our biggest rival helps push me to try to beat her in assists,” Cook said of Bray. “It also shows our area has a lot of great players."
“Our quality of play in Christian County is some of the best,” Bray said,. “We play for very well-coached teams with amazing players. I respect Reece. I think she does a lot of good things for her team and has great hitters. Coming from an undersized setter myself, I think she does a very good job of being an offensive threat and a good blocker for her team.”
Cook reached the 2,000 assists milestone for her career at the Ozark Grand Slam Tournament. She set an Ozark record with 1,085 assists last season. The previous single-season mark was 864, set by Kendra Sater in 2015.
Of course, with MSHSAA’s change from a best-of-3 format to a best-of-5 beginning 2020, records sboards tatewide require some sort of clarification distinguishing the eras.
Lady Tigers coach Adeana Brewer notes Cook’s average of 10.9 assists a set is comparable to her predecessors at setter in Ozark’s rich history.
“We have have beaten a lot of teams in three sets this season. She would have an even larger assists number, if we were playing four- and five-set matches,” Brewer said. “What's most impressive is her average of 10.9 assists a set.”
“I'm proud of that number. Looking at that number helps me know I'm getting better every year,” said Cook, whose assists average per set was 10.3 last season.
“I couldn't do it without the people I'm surrounded by,” she added. “It makes my job easier when I have great hitters who are able to put balls down and help me break these records.”
Cook has fed the ball enough to teammates Reagan Baade, Tara Venable, Skylar Hilton and Ashya Thompson for them to all have 172 kills or more. She's kept opponents guessing who she will go to.
“Is it hard to sometimes make that decision in a split-second? Yes, but I always trust they all can put the ball away,” Cook said. “With the hitters we have, they all want the ball. On game points if I'm on the front row with Reagan or Skylar, they're like, 'Give me the ball, I want the last ball.' Any hitter who wants the ball and is going to go after it aggressively is going to get it.”
“We have a lot of offensive weapons and she is doing a good job dispersing our offense,” Brewer said. “Reece is doing a good job at finding the hot hand.”
With Bray also spreading the wealth, Nixa’s Ava Owens, Chloe Judd, Amelia White, Gwen Kubik and Taylor Wood all have at least 150 kills.
“Our hitters trust her and she can deliver consistent balls for them,” Lady Eagles coach Annie Zimmerman said.
Being at setter very much fits the personalities of Cook and Bray.
“I love being in that position,” Cook said. “I’m very much a perfectionist and I love being in control. I'm there to kind of glue everyone together.”
“I definitely am a vocal leader on the court, especially having the job I have by being the floor general,” Bray said. “Having to know what’s going on at all times for me is very natural and I enjoy it.”
“She is a very big personality on the court,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes, trying to get that focused in and moving in a positive direction is a big key. We've talked a lot about her keeping her head clear, so she can make the best decision in those fast moments. She's done a good job of that.”
Cook and Bray are well-rounded players. Cook’s stats line also includes 40 kills, 27 blocks, 175 digs, while Bray’s profile also includes 118 kills, 19 blocks and 281 digs.
“I’m having to be more offensive. It’s been a good challenge to figure out how to get around blockers,” Bray said.
“Jacy is getting the ball where it needs to go and is also an attack option herself,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve encouraged her to be aggressive and not to be afraid to score points herself at the net. She is obviously a very important piece of the puzzle for us.”
It’s been a fulfilling senior season for Bray, particularly after she had to fight through rehab from a dislated patella she suffered last basketball season.
“My rehab was long and hard, but s o worth it for me,” Bray said. “It took a toll on me, but I worked very hard for six months and got to start playing again this summer.
“Being injured never really stopped me from getting touches,” she added. “I was still consistently working on my game, just in a different way. There were a lot of mental adjustments, getting myself ready for high-level games again and trusting myself to do the things that came naturally to me, like jumping and turning. I always set high expectations for myself and so far I feel like I’ve met them.”