Lady Blues falter with loss in MIAA tournament

Double team No. 11 Tessa Jones and No. 15 Mandi Cox go up for a block against Missouri Western Tuesday in Washburn’s 30-19, 30-20, 30-22 MIAA tournament first round win. Washburn was bounced from the tournament in its semifinal match against Pittsburg State Friday.

The Lady Blues are human after all.

After cranking out 27 straight wins with machine-like efficiency, Washburn lost two of its last four volleyball matches to finish the regular season and conference tournament with a 34-3 record.

In their next to last regular season game, the Lady Blues were swept 3-0 with nothing at stake other than an undefeated conference record. The latest loss, which came in the semifinals of the MIAA tournament against Pittsburg State, hurt much more.

The Lady Blues swept Missouri Western 30-19, 30-20, 30-22 in the first round of the MIAA tournament to finish the season with a perfect 16-0 home record. That victory set up a semifinal match between PSU and Washburn, which was held at Truman State because the host site rotates between the east and west division leaders each year.

“This is the year for the east to host the conference championship,” said head coach Chris Herron. “So even if our record is better than anybody’s in the conference we still have to play on the road after the first round.”

The semifinal match was the third time the No. 6 Lady Blues had to face the No. 18 Gorillas this season, and once again it took the teams five games to decide a winner. The game five 15-point tiebreaker went the Gorillas’ way this time, and Washburn dropped the match 23-30, 20-30, 30-26, 30-25, 13-15.

“Pitt State was unconscious, out of their minds good in games one and two,” said Herron. “After those games, we had a big hole to get out of.”

The Gorillas committed only two attack errors in game one and just five in game two. When an opponent plays virtually mistake-free, all a team can do is wait for its opportunity to strike back. The Lady Blues were patient enough to do just that in the following two games.

“We could have quit and folded our tents, but we played better in the third and fourth games,” said Herron. “After those first two games, we blocked better and served better.”

Suddenly, PSU started committing errors like a Royals shortstop and let an 11-13 game three lead slip away thanks to a 7-0 Washburn run. Both teams had unusually low hitting percentages in the game, but the Lady Blues found a way to win and finished on a 5-2 run.

Game four was a five-point Washburn win but was the closest of the five most of the way. After being tied 19-19, the Lady Blues pulled away in a game that saw nine ties and three lead changes.

“I’m happy with the kids for fighting back,” said Herron. “Sometimes in the end it just takes a little luck here or there.”

For the first time all season, Washburn lost in game five. When two teams are matched as closely as the Lady Blues and Gorillas, a few breaks for one team or the other will usually decide the winner. Until recently, Washburn had everything going its way in each game, but it is unavoidable not to slip up every once in a while when going through a schedule as tough as the Lady Blues’.

“It’s easy to just say it’s two losses,” said Herron. “But it’s just been two points, two points, two points every time we’ve lost a game. It’s not that we’re playing god-awful.”

Despite the losing effort, Washburn’s usual list of contributors still put up big numbers. Senior Erica Cowhick had 14 digs in her final conference tournament game, which moves her to second on the all-time MIAA digs list with 2,334. Sophomore Kate Hampson consistently reaches the 50-assist mark, totaling 62 against PSU. Senior Tessa Jones’ 28 kills and 12 digs give her yet another double double. While the team played well overall in the MIAA semifinals, the two-game deficit ended up being too much for the Lady Blues to overcome.

The team hoped for PSU to upset Truman State, who was ranked one spot behind Washburn in the regional rankings, in Saturday’s conference championship. However, TSU took care of business on its home court and will likely pass the No. 1 Lady Blues for the chance to host the South Central region in the NCAA tournament.

“We would have liked to have had our own fans here and play on our home court and sleep in our own beds, obviously,” said Herron. “But the conference championship was to decide if it would be at Washburn or Truman.”

With a close loss to a top 20 team, it appears that Washburn’s tough schedule may have finally caught up to the Lady Blues near the end of the season, but if the loss had anything to do with lack of focus, Herron says that will not be an issue from here on out.

“The sense of urgency wasn’t there at the beginning,” said Herron. “From now on, our motivation is that if we lose, it’s one and done.”