Emporia State falls before MIAA regular season champs No. 5-ranked Washburn

Robert Burkett

Few buildings give a team a home court advantage like White Auditorium does for the Lady Hornets of Emporia State.

As one walked into the building Friday night, situated in the heart of Emporia, Kan., it became obvious to anyone in attendance why the Lady Hornets have a much better home record. The acoustics of the building are such that as one of the building staff members half-jokingly said, “They were going to see if they could hit 100-decibels.”

Prior to match start time, the ESU crowd were getting themselves ready for a playoff-type atmosphere. Students painted their chests spelling out, “ESU HORNETS” while others were outfitted in rainbow clown wigs and holding signs urging their team to victory.

Even with all the pageantry of the evening, the Lady Blues weren’t fazed as they went through their normal pre-game getting ready to collide with a team that, less than a month prior, had pushed them to the limit at home before Washburn prevailed 3-2.

As the start of play ensued, Washburn’s game-plan had been targeted at stopping Emporia State’s Brittney Miller, right-side hitter. That changed immediately, as Miller went down with a knee injury and wouldn’t return.

“Our whole game plan had been to take her out of their system as much as possible,” said Chris Herron, Washburn volleyball coach. “After that I think we relaxed and lost our momentum for a little bit.”

After composing themselves, the Lady Hornets continued to play throughout the first set with determination as they extended a lead that grew at one point to 12-4 before Washburn began to close the gap. The initial lead though, would be too much for the Lady Blues to overcome and Emporia State took the first set 25-23.

The second set Washburn responded as they reeled off back-to-back four point rallies followed by a five-point rally midway through. Led by Hillary Hughes, sophomore outside hitter, with 4 kills on 9 attacks in the set, Washburn took the set in convincing fashion 25-13.

The Lady Hornets weren’t going away that easily though, as set three featured a pitched battle that saw the lead change only once but saw Washburn extend their lead to as many as eight points before 10 attack errors and 1 blocking error caught up to them. The set ended in extra points as Washburn tied the score late at 24-24 but couldn’t sustain the effort and finally fell 26-24.

In the fourth set, Washburn and Emporia State dueled back and forth in a classic test of wills as the score stayed within two points for most of the first half of the set. Key kills from Hughes and timely serving from Kelsey Lewis, freshman outside hitter, allowed the Lady Blues to open up the lead and take the set eventually 25-20.

Lewis’ contributions in key situations throughout the two late sets didn’t go unnoticed.

“Kelsey Lewis came in and was money doing what she did in critical situations in game four and game five,” said Herron. “That’s some moxie.”

With the match tied at 2-2, the “Turnpike Tussle” went to a fifth and deciding set and Washburn didn’t waste the chance before it to finish off their opponent. After trading points back and forth, the Lady Blues went on an 8-point run that broke the back of their rival en route to a 15-7 set win and a 3-2 match win.

For Washburn, the win capped off a regular season that ended with them taking a share of the MIAA conference title, their first since 2007.

“I’m so excited for our kids,” said Herron. “We haven’t won for a couple of years. When you don’t win for a couple of years, people wonder what’s going on. They forget we won 30 [games] each time. The MIAA is not kind.”

Going forward, Washburn now faces a second seed in their region for the NCAA postseason. The Lady Blues will travel to Warrensburg, Mo., to take on the Lady Bearcats of Northwest Missouri State University in a rematch of the last time that Washburn lost this season. The match is set for 2:30 p.m. Nov. 18 on the campus of No. 1 seeded University of Central Missouri.

Key Contributors:

-Hillary Hughes had 19 kills and 14 digs for Washburn. Jessica Fey had 15 kills, Breanna Lewis 12 and Mollie Lacy 10. Setters Amanda Guess and Abby Wittman had 31 and 27 assists, respectively.