Lady Blues ready to go

Washburn will face No. 7-seed Northwest Missouri Thursday in the first round of the tournament. The Lady Bearcats are making their first appearance in the tournament after accumulating a 15-14 record, including a 3-2 victory against Washburn Oct. 19.

The Lady Blues volleyball team finished the 2010 season with a record of 32-3, a seventh consecutive appearance at the NCAA tournament and another MIAA title. Entering the 2011 season, junior middle hitter Jessica Fey said the pressure is on to continue the success and to make it even further.

“We had a really successful season, and I was pleased with how we played,” Fey said. “It was a good season, but it was sad when we lost because we were a close group.”

Senior teammate rightside hitter Breanna Lewis agreed the bond between the 2010 players was a strength.

“We had a lot of team chemistry, no drama and we all got along,” Lewis said. “We worked well together.”

 Head coach Chris Herron agreed the chemistry of the girls last year was “unbelievably good” mainly because they all had the same goals.  He said a lot of “key players” are back this season including both setters and five hitters who reached more than 200 kills last year.

The Lady Blues return 12 girls and lost three seniors, one being All-American libero Molly Smith, who was the 2010 captain. A noted difference of this season’s team according to Herron is the lack of Smith’s leadership.  The team will have to look to find a new leader to replace Smith’s contributions.

 “We had a really good leader and a lot of experience. We were really diverse with hitters, a veteran setter and a senior libero,” Fey said. “I expect a lot of leadership from the returning girls and getting the job done. We lost a couple games last year we shouldn’t have lost, and we’re not going to do that this year.”

One of the games lost was against Central Missouri in the regional championship match. Fey said playing Central Missouri is always an “intense battle” and was one of their toughest competitors last year and will remain a threat this year. Another rival from last season was Northwest Missouri, who the Lady Blues lost to in five games.

“That game was the one time we didn’t play as a team and was part of the reason we didn’t host regionals,” Lewis said. “But it taught us how important every game is.”

The team won an MIAA title for the third time with a 3-2 win in the championship game against rival Emporia State. The girls also reached the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive year, making it to the Sweet 16 championship where they were defeated by the No. 1 seed Central Missouri. Lewis said the fact the returning players have a taste of what it is like to get to the regional finals will help push them to the Elite 8 this season, and Fey agreed it would be an incentive to help the team get even further.

“We were so close to reaching our goal last year of making it to the Elite 8,” Fey said. “It gives us so much motivation. I feel better about this season because we have a lot more experience. I think this year we’re going to be a stronger team.”

Fey said the main goal for this season is to win a national championship. The Lady Blues enter the 2011 pre-season fifth in the nation. Lewis is confident in this season’s team.

“We still have some things to work out, but we have a lot of talent,” Lewis said. “Once we work out a few very minor kinks, I think we’ll be really good.”

Four new players join the Lady Blues, and Herron expects them to see plenty of playing time because all the newcomers “are ahead of the curve.”

“Talent wise we have just as much talent this season,” Herron said. “It’s the will of the group of girls that determines how good we’re going to be.”