The opening day of the volleyball season was far from an ordinary one for College of the Ozarks on Wednesday.
The day started with a futile call to the NAIA by Lady Bobcats’ coach Stacy Muckenthaler, in an attempt to get sophomore transfer Izzy Gibbany ruled eligible.
That led to an afternoon of shuffling throughout the lineup to get ready to play without Gibbany.
In the evening, rival Evangel University – undefeated at 6-0 on the season – came into Keeter Gymnasium and took the first two sets against the Lady Bobcats.
That sent C of O into the break searching for answers, and needing them quickly.
“In the locker room, it was just, ‘Hey, this is not how we play, it’s not who we are. You have to enjoy every point or it’s not going to come to you easily,’ ” Muckenthaler said.
“It was like a flipped switch.”
The Lady Bobcats flipped the proverbial switch, rallying for a five-set victory, by set scores of 26-28, 15-25, 25-23, 25-21, 15-9.
“You could tell in the second set, we got real quiet and it was just dead energy,” senior Ryley Thixton said. “As soon as we went back to the locker room, we came back out here and the energy, from the court all the way to the end of the bench, was 12 notches higher.”
Thixton finished with 21 kills and 15 digs, with Abi Menzies adding 14 kills, Kayley Smith chipping in with nine kills and five digs, and Rielly Wallace dishing out 47 assists.
Haley Stallings had a team-high 27 digs, stepping in as a last-minute replacement for Gibbany.
“We completely shifted three people around, changing positions and making it work,” Muckenthaler said. “It’s not ideal to do that the day of the game. But it is what it is, and the girls did a great job adjusting.
“It just took the first two sets for it to get under our belts and make it happen.”
The first two sets couldn’t have served as a worse start to the season for C of O.
The Lady Bobcats trailed for most of the first set, then fought off three set points and even had a set point of their own, before an Eryn Russell kill gave Evangel a 28-26 victory.
The Lady Crusaders dominated the second set, taking leads of 6-1, 9-2 and 15-5. C of O rallied to within 21-14, but three consecutive kills from Ciera Reyes gave Evangel a 25-15 victory and a 2-0 lead in the match.
That sent C of O limping into the locker room for the break, searching for answers.
“That was our first game of the season, and the first time all of us were on the same side of the net, playing together,” Thixton said. “So obviously we had some jitters, and freshmen playing and stuff.
“I think our team is pretty good at fighting, so after the second set, after we went back to the locker room and got a second to regroup. I knew that after we came out for the third set, we had a pretty good chance.”
C of O pulled away in the last half of the fourth set, from a 14-all tie to take control. Menzies, a freshman from Clever, made a big impact, following kills from Kaylee Larimer and Wallace with a big kill down the line, giving her team a 17-15 lead and leading to an Evangel timeout.
C of O took a 23-17 lead, then ended the set with a kill from Menzies and a block for a point by Wallace.
The Lady Bobcats led for almost the entire fourth set, with Menzies again coming up big. She had a pair of kills and teamed with Wallace for a block for another point, to make it an 18-11 lead. A block by Thixton and a service ace from Hobbs made it a 22-14 lead.
Evangel rallied to within 24-21, but a hitting error gave C of O the match-evening set.
The Lady Bobcats never trailed in the final set. The key stretch came just after the midway point, with a run turned an 8-6 C of O lead into a 12-6 count.
Larimer and Maggie Plake teamed up for a block, followed by a Plake kill, a Thixton service ace and a Menzies kill. The match ended on a tip kill by Wallace. It was a show of maturity from a team that was thrown a curveball by losing Gibbany, a defensive specialist expected to play a key role with this year’s team.
“Honestly, at first we were like, ‘Whoa,’ because that’s literally what we have been practicing a few days ago,” Thixton said. “Then we just honed in and knew we couldn’t let this one thing affect us.
“We had to act like this is what we have been practicing with the whole time and play to the best of our abilities in whatever position we were in.”
The good news is that when the Lady Bobcats go on the road for the first time this season, playing at a tournament in Bellevue, Nebraska, on Friday and Saturday, they are expected to have Gibbany available to them.
“Overall, it was a phenomenal team win – everybody on the bench was into it,” Muckenthaler said. “It was a lot of fun.
“We’re excited. By this weekend, everybody should be eligible.”