WILLARD, Mo. – The first two sets of the Blue Springs South-Willard Class 4 state quarterfinal match were slugfests.

After the Tigers took the first set 25-23, the Jaguars bounced back to take the second 26-24. Jaguars head coach Mallori Perry hoped that momentum would carry over into the third set.

The exact opposite happened.

The Jaguars struggled with communication, passing and hitting. Willard spoiled a potential trip to state for South in a 23-25, 26-24, 25-14 win Saturday at Willard High School.

South defeated Carl Junction 26-24, 25-22 in the sectional round earlier in the day to come within one win of going to Cape Girardeau for the state final four.

But things fell apart in the winner-take-all third set. South had trouble stopping spikes by Willard sophomore Madelyn Bushnell and junior Emily Terry, who combined for nine kills in the final game. The Jaguars struggled to mount any sort of offense as the passing was off for most of the set.

Willard jumped out to a 7-1 lead and eventually went ahead 19-8, which was more than enough of a cushion to get past South.

“It was almost like we were playing not to lose instead of trying to win,” Perry said. “It was a can’t lose mentality.”

Throughout the match, Terry gave South fits with a top-spin serve – one which barely cleared the net and then took a nosedive toward the floor.

“That top-spin serve was a big weakness for us on serve receive,” Perry said. “We couldn’t find a way. We’ve seen that serve before, just not that aggressive.

“These kids see that type of ball in club a lot, but until districts, we didn’t see that. We tried to make an adjustment to that and it didn’t work our way.”

Added senior Hannah LaPour: “That really caught us off guard. They threw a lot at us.”

The Jaguars (29-7) struggled to set players like LaPour and Meauna Booth up for high percentage kill opportunities. Perry pointed toward her team being “out of system” as the reason for that happening.

“We weren’t able to run the offense we were normally able to run,” she said.

South jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first set but Willard came back to tie it and take the lead. A trio of Willard aces and South errors helped the Tigers build a 15-9 lead. The Jaguars slowly chipped away at the lead and narrowed the gap to 24-23 after a kill from senior outside hitter Katie Sparks. However, a long rally went Willard’s way as a spike from South went out of bounds to give the Tigers the first set.

The Jaguars came out with a flourish in the second set and jumped ahead 11-5 thanks to solid play at the net from LaPour, Booth and Morgan Gish. Willard went on a 6-0 run to tie it before a pair of Sparks kills and one from middle hitter Carsen Murray jump-started a 3-0 run that gave South the lead for good.

Although her team fell short of state, Perry said she was happy with her team’s season as the Jaguars won a Suburban Big Six Conference and district titles.

“I was telling them not to let this game define them as people or as a team or define our season,” said Perry, who will lose eight seniors to graduation. “The fact that we made it this far means we overcame the transition of a new coach, new staff and doing things a different way. I told them, ‘Thank you for buying in.’ These kids made the season.”

Added LaPour: “I am proud of everyone. We had a new coaching staff and there were a lot of adjustments to make. We just did amazing with it.”