Mustangs capture their first district championship since 1998
Eldon senior Taylor Henderson and her sophomore sister, Haley, did not find it easy to get some sleep Wednesday night.
Anticipating the opportunity to play in a district championship at rival School of the Osage the next day, they eagerly looked forward to a rematch against the Indians and the chance to avenge a loss that took all five sets in their only previous meeting this season.
Well, even the best of their hopes and imaginations may not have matched what actually took place on Thursday and the moment they got to share. The Mustangs not only swept their rivals in three sets, Haley got to smack down the kill that won set two and Taylor delivered the final game-winning kill in set three that gave the program its first district championship since 1998.
“It is so special to us,” Taylor said of winning a district championship. “We worked so hard for this and even last year we were like, ‘We’re winning a district championship.’
“It has been so fun playing with her so I don’t want it to end.”
The two sisters and the rest of their teammates will get to play at least one more game together after punching a ticket to the Class 3 State Tournament and the opportunity to go after a state title.
And it was a little resiliency from the Mustangs that made it happen. Osage never held a lead higher than two points in any of the three sets.
“We came here the first time and did not have a very good night,” Eldon coach Melinda Wrye-Washington said of the previous meeting between the two rivals. “Physically, we did not play bad but mentally and emotionally we we’re really drained. I was actually glad we got to play Osage again. I’m really proud of their resiliency mentally, physically and emotionally and they never gave up. Good plays and bad plays, we were always in ‘next play’ mentality, which i what we work for. Try to correct what you can, but don’t look back and don’t get down in a rut. They are really starting to get the concept.”
Eldon jumped out to a strong start and cruised to a 25-10 win in the first set, using a 14-2 run to break a 4-4 tie. It would not be that easy the rest of the way, though.
The second set of the night featured 12 total ties and six lead changes and the Mustangs never led by more than six points in a 25-21 decision. After Eldon broke a 6-6 tie with a 7-1 run, Osage stormed right back with the same exact run to tie the set at 14. Eventually, a 5-1 Mustang run to the end sealed it after both teams were tied at 20.
The Indians consistently held leads in the finale, but the Mustangs stuck with them and never allowed much breathing room on the scoreboard. There were 20 total ties and seven lead changes and Osage actually had a chance to win the set on game point three different times, but Eldon simply refused to go away and tied the game back up each time before capturing the title with a 28-26 win.
“We definitely had a slow start in the first game. The atmosphere was incredible but something we have not experienced this year due to COVID,” Osage coach Lori Klaus said of the championship game. “We have not played in a loud gym with a lot of fans and the message after the first set was composure and confidence. ‘That crowd is here for you, use it, and don’t let it rattle you any further.’
“I was proud of the girls’ ability to fight back in the second and third set despite the rough first game. We didn’t quit, we continued to fight and play hard.”
Osage had to fight for just about every point they could get and this has not been a new trend for teams who have stepped on the court with Eldon recently. The Mustangs enjoyed an 11-game winning streak towards the end of the season, winning 24 of 25 sets, before the winning streak came to an end at Helias in the regular season finale in a battle that took all five sets. The program has won six straight sets to start the postseason.
“I think that week we played Bolivar and Eugene we really stepped up and were like, ‘Wow, we really are that good,’ and then playing Helias and going five (sets)- almost beating them- we have just totally been a different team and it has been crazy, it has been fun,” Taylor said of her team.
“‘Minnow’ is not easy on us and practices do not just go by. She works us and we have been working super hard for this,” the senior said of her coach.
Eldon junior Caroline Beckmann led the Mustang attack with 19 kills while Haley finished with 10, Taylor added five and both senior Cassidy Prater and junior Jade Hall contributed a pair of kills each. Beckmann served three aces and senior Addie Davis had two as the Mustangs finished with eight overall and Davis also delivered all 35 assists. The defensive effort was led by junior Tatum Frank who had 18 digs while Beckmann added 14, Haley had 11, Davis contributed eight and Taylor finished with five. Both Hall and Taylor finished with a pair of blocks and Prater also had a block.
Wrye-Washington said she has been looking for her players to trust each other to do their jobs and the message got through, especially towards the end when the Mustangs did not disappoint to earn the championship with a sweep.
“That is exactly what they did, everyone was accountable. We are working for an accountability culture in volleyball,” the coach said, noting the hard work the team has put in paid off. “We were all together in the end and that is what counts, the finish.”
It is all part of a culture change the coach has been striving for since she took over the program of her alma mater a season ago. There was a time where Eldon had once gone to eight consecutive Final Fours between 1986 and 1993 and the program brought home a state championship in 1991, which the current head coach was a part of. Change does not take place overnight, but the first district title since 1998 is not a bad place to start.
“They did the work. They listened, they executed and worked hard without any complaints,” Wrye-Washington stated. “It is all on them and they did a great job. I’m really proud of them and proud of Eldon. Eldon has great athletes, great programs and great opportunities for the kids, even outside of athletics.
“I really feel like these girls are working to change the culture,” the coach continued, noting all the young girls who were in attendance Thursday night. “That culture change is only made with hard work.”
It was also unprecedented territory for Osage who had not played for a district championship in 16 years. This was just the seventh team in program history to have that opportunity as the team finished with a record of 17-13-1.
“I’m extremely proud of this team and what they accomplished,” Klaus stated. “What they have accomplished does not happen every year for Osage. It has obviously been a tough and strange season with COVID and we feel blessed and thankful to have been able to have the majority of our season.”
Osage senior Sara Wolf paced the Indians with 15 kills while senior Carly Hambly smacked down six, freshman Alison Steen added four and senior Alisa Boswell finished with three. Junior Shelby Spriggs, senior Page Rowland and sophomore Aubry Boren each served an ace and Rowland added 23 assists. Spriggs kept her team fighting with 25 digs while Wolf added 10 and both Hambly and Rowland added four each while juniors Adrienne Dubbs and Juliana Bryant finished with three each. Boswell also posted two blocks and Steen had a block.
It was the final game for four Osage seniors and Klaus said they will be leaving big shoes to fill with the leaders they are on and off the court.
“There is no doubt in my mind these four will be very successful post high school. I am so proud of them and what they have done for Osage volleyball,” the coach said. “They are leaving a legacy to be remembered and we have a lot of little girls, my fifth grader being one of them, who look up to these four and want to be just like them. That is something to be proud of.”
The coach also wants everyone else to be just as proud, too.
“It is always hard for a season to end and to your rival on home court in a district championship it stings a little more than normal,” Klaus noted. “However, the message after the game was hold your head up high. You had a great season, you improved, you worked hard and you did something only seven other teams in school history have done. Be proud because w are proud of you. To the non-seniors, don’t be satisfied. Do what it takes in the offseason to prepare so we can have another shot at it next year.”
Eldon (24-5-1) will continue its journey as one of the 16 best Class 3 teams in the state. The Mustangs return to the court on Saturday at Springfield Catholic, needing just two more wins to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1993.
“We hold ourselves to a whole new standard now, just expecting to win every game,” Beckmann said. “Expecting to take the hardest teams to 25 points every set.”
And they have the backing of a community behind them, too.
“We are Eldon. The parents, the crowd and the commitment of the community to come out and support us- it is not just us, it is everyone, so it is a community effort and I’m really proud of everything Eldon tonight,” Wrye-Washington said after Thursday night’s game.
Eldon will quickly get back to the grind before taking taking on the hosts who are 31-2-1 on the season. The match is slated to start at 1:30 p.m. Should the Mustangs win, the next game for a trip to the Final Four is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m.
“I really kind of tried to stack our schedule at the end. We lost the Ozark Tournament late due to some COVID and roster issues, but we picked up Helias and pushed them to their first 5-set match of the year and we played Bolivar who beat us last year,” Wrye-Washington pointed out. “I feel like we’ve really challenged them in schedule and who we played late, which is going to help us get a victory.”
Time to see how long this journey can continue.