Lady Blues enter final stretch of regular season

With just seven matches remaining in the regular season, the No. 5-ranked Lady Blues are closing in on their fourth regular season MIAA championship in the last six years.

This week’s games are both at home against conference opponents Fort Hays State (14-11 overall, 1-6 MIAA) and Missouri Western (9-16, 1-6). After playing at least one ranked team in each of the last five weeks, the Lady Blues finally get a break in their MIAA schedule, playing two teams in the bottom half of the conference standings.

“We have five conference teams in the top 25,” said head coach Chris Herron. “I don’t know if people realize that. eight of the 10 teams in our conference have a winning record, so every single game is big.”

Washburn begins the three-match home stand 7 p.m. Thursday against FHSU in Lee Arena.

When the two teams last faced off on Sept. 12 in Hays, the Lady Blues swept the match 30-19, 30-25, 30-16. It was the first conference match of the season for Washburn, and the win improved head coach Chris Herron’s record to 6-0 in conference openers.

At the time, the Lady Blues were ranked No. 8 and on a nine-match winning streak. The Lady Tigers will have a tough time avenging their early season loss now that they are playing a Washburn team that has won 22-straight matches and is unbeaten in Lee Arena.

However, the pressure of that win streak increases with each victory the Lady Blues amass.

“The pressure gets worse and worse with every game,” said senior Tessa Jones. “We’re the only undefeated team in the conference and it gets tougher every game because everyone wants to beat us. That’s a good thing, but it’s hard.”

On homecoming Saturday, the team will play MWSU at 4:30 p.m. Following the Ichabods’ football game against Truman State, fans can head to Lee Arena as the Lady Blues face the cellar dwellers of the MIAA East Division.

This will be the only time Washburn plays the Griffons this season, but their last meeting was the Lady Blues’ final match of the 2006 regular season.

Washburn swept the match 3-0 and was named regular season champions of the West Division heading into the MIAA tournament. Players have come and gone since last season’s match up, but the Lady Blues are expected to win in a fashion similar to last season’s three game sweep. Although MWSU is one of two MIAA teams with a losing record, Herron still is not taking the match for granted.

“It’s not because of them being under pressure,” said Herron. “It’s because we play to the level of our competition.”

The habit of playing that way is one reason for Washburn’s 6-0 record against ranked opponents, but playing down to the level of other teams may be the only way the Lady Blues could slip against teams like MWSU.

Although the teams Washburn plays over homecoming week do not pose much of a threat, each match from here on out is crucial for the Lady Blues. This is the easiest stretch of opponents Washburn has faced in a while, with three straight home matches against unranked opponents.

Coach Herron has preached to his team all year long that no opponent should be overlooked. If the Lady Blues follow his instruction in their upcoming home games against FHSU and MWSU, they will have increased their winning streak and confidence heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

The homecoming week matches might lack the excitement of the Lady Blues’ recent top 10 match ups, but winning against lower level competition is just as important for postseason positioning. Washburn holds the top spot in the first regional rankings of the season, a position they will stay in as long as the wins keep coming.

“If we win out, that means we’ll get to play the regional games here at home,” said Herron. “We would be here all the way up to the Elite 8, so winning each game coming up is huge.”