KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Annika Welty returned to the court just in time for the final point, able to take her place in the middle of Park Hill South’s celebration. She’s been in the middle of the Panthers’ success all season.
Park Hill South never trailed in a 25-20, 25-21 win over rival Park Hill in the Class 4 District 16 championship match Wednesday, Oct. 18 at Falcon Fieldhouse. The Panthers avenged two prior losses from earlier in the season behind Welty’s match-high 10 kills.
One of just two seniors on the roster, Welty now leads Park Hill South back into the playoffs for a second straight season despite a youthful roster that includes three freshman starters.
“It was really unexpected this season, but it’s just been a lot of fun,” said Welty, who missed the season’s second matchup with Park Hill at the Truman Tournament due to back spasms. “We just wanted to play well this season and see what we could do. We weren’t sure with a brand new team what we’d be able to do. We get to this point, and it’s just very exciting.”
The No. 2 seed despite the wins over Park Hill South, Park Hill finished at 21-13-3 but didn’t bow out due to its penchant for slow starts.
Park Hill South took a 10-6 lead in the opening set when junior Michelle Dvorak knocked down one of her four kills off an errant pass over the net. Following a timeout, Park Hill closed within 11-10 before Welty contributed an emphatic kill and her lone block during a 5-1 run.
Welty exited following a service error with Park Hill South up 19-15 in the opening set. Park Hill three times cut the lead to three but couldn’t come any closer, dropping a set to the Panthers for the first time this season.
“We were really energetic the whole time, and we weren’t going to let the other side of the net bring us down at all,” Welty said. “I think we were ready to go. The first time we played Park Hill was like a practice run for this.”
Park Hill South’s freshmen provided the next big contributions during alternating runs to start the second set.
Arley Anderson, Park Hill South’s setter, opened with four straight service points, including an ace, but Park Hill answered with four straight for an early tie. Abbie Day, a freshman outside hitter for the Panthers, then served up four straight points with an ace to make it 9-4.
Day also added six kills and a team-high 16 digs for Park Hill South, while Arley Anderson had 22 assists. Adah Anderson, another freshman for the Panthers, added 10 digs — fourth best in the match for the Panthers behind Day, junior Kacy Lewallen (14) and junior Hannah Knight (13).
“Everybody had a job to do, and everybody did their job well,” Rule said. “It didn’t matter what their age was. They came to compete, and that’s what we needed to happen.”
Day supplied two of her kills on back-to-back points to put Park Hill South up 14-8.
Park Hill couldn’t come up with an answer and lost to its biggest rival in the district title game for a second straight season. The Trojans enjoyed another standout season with senior setter Kayla Huffman (13 assists, three blocks), middle hitter Kai Welsh (six kills, two blocks) and libero Madison Michaelis (15 digs) playing large roles in their final game and program’s recent resurgence, which included 20- and 21-win campaigns the past two years.
Down three late in the second set, Park Hill committed an attack error on the final play, setting off Park Hill South’s celebration while the Trojans’ dejectedly waited for the post-match handshake.
“It’s really hard to beat a good team three times,” Park Hill South coach Karen Rule said.
Park Hill South (23-6-2) drew a familiar foe for the Class 4 sectional Saturday, Oct. 21. The Panthers will host St. Teresa’s Academy (23-4-2) at 1 p.m. in Riverside, Mo.
The two teams have met in each of the previous six postseasons with St. Teresa’s winning district matchups over Park Hill South in 2012 and 2015, and playoff meetings in 2011 (sectional) and 2016 (quarterfinal). The Panthers’ lone wins in that stretch came in a 2013 district title game during their best season in program history and then again in a 2014 district semifinal before losing the title match to Liberty.
With Welty the lone returning starter from last year’s quarterfinal, Park Hill South didn’t know whether another meeting would be in the cards with a talented but inexperienced lineup.
“Not just a great player, she’s a great kid,” Rule said of her star. “Any time you have great kids as seniors, you want them to have success for as long as they can have it.”
Park Hill South 2, Staley 1
Rule returned to the sideline for the first time in two weeks with the Panthers experiencing some early jitters in a semifinal matchup with the hosts Wednesday, Oct. 18.
After a first round bye, Park Hill South started its tournament slowly, but neither team led by more than two points during a tight opening set. Welty went on a short service run that included her ace to put the Panthers up 15-14.
Welty served again with Park Hill South up 23-22 late, but Staley survived two set points and then closed on a 4-0 run to take the opener 26-24.
“We were young, and I was concerned with us having a bye and how it would affect us,” said Rule, who was out for the two weeks to deal with a personal matter. “In the first set, we had our jitters, just like every team had the first night they played.”
Welty finished with eight kills and two blocks, but the 6-foot-3 middle hitter leads Park Hill South in aces this year and came up big in those spots to spark the comeback.
Staley fell behind 7-4 — the first three-point lead for either team — during a service run for Welty before she went to the bench. The Panthers stayed ahead, and she came back in to spark a quick 3-0 run to start the runaway in the second.
“A lot of times when she goes back to serve, (opposing teams) think it’ll just be one point,” Rule said. “It ends up being two or three for us, which is always a positive.”
After a Staley timeout, Park Hill South’s run hit eight unanswered with Lewallen (team-high 22 digs) on service. Welty closed the 25-14 win in the second set with both of her blocks.
Park Hill South opened the third set up 2-0 and then 4-1, but Staley forced a pair of ties. The Panthers wouldn’t trail and led by 10 on multiple occasions before scoring the final three points of the match for a comeback 24-26, 25-14, 25-19.
Dvorak finished behind Welty with six kills and a team-high blocks, while Park Hill South sophomore Rachel Francis (five kills) and junior Cassidy Hedrick (four kills) complemented the top two. Arley Anderson had two service aces.
Park Hill 2, Oak Park 0
The Trojans started slow for a second straight time in district play but recovered for a 25-21, 25-23 sweep Wednesday, Oct. 18 ahead of the title match.
Oak Park, seeded third, took leads of 4-0 and 5-1 before Park Hill freshman Kristen Birmingham supplied two of her team-high 10 kills in the early comeback. The Trojans were up 17-14 late and seemed in control until a late run forged a final tie at 21-21.
Park Hill closed on a 4-0 run that started with a service and return error.
Sabrina Lane, a junior who finished with nine kills, supplied an early service run in the second set that included two aces. Oak Park again pushed back for a tie at 11-11, and the Lady Oakies stayed close from there.
Michaelis finished with 19 digs to lead Park Hill, while Lane finished her all-around effort with 15. Huffman totaled 23 assists.