West Plains, Mo. – Members of the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly Volleyball team knew they had a big task in front of them.
They were hosting the current No. 2 team in the nation, the Iowa Western Community College Reivers from Council Bluffs, for their season home opener Saturday, Sept. 8 – a team whose only loss had come at the hands of the nation's No. 1 junior college team, the Miami Dade College Sharks.
And, during the first set, it looked as if the 17th-ranked Grizzlies, who had already taken down the preseason No. 2 team College of Southern Idaho, might just do it again.
But the Reivers proved too much to handle, and the Grizzlies fell 29-31, 17-25, 12-25. The loss dropped their season record to 6-4.
"We knew they were big and talented and aggressive," Grizzly Volleyball Head Coach Paula Wiedemann said. "The difference in the game is they continued to play big and aggressive and we didn't.
"Confidence is shown in how you play against your opponent," she added. "You have to have the mentality that you're going to go up and take big swings, get in and dig the hard shot, and you have to keep moving to put yourself in position to make a play. These are areas where we've grown, but this game showed how far we still need to go."
The Grizzlies had their opportunities to take the first set. Down 6-8, the Grizzlies battled back to knot the score at 24-24.
"It's great to give yourself the opportunity to win the first set, but you have to finish. We had a couple of set points, but we didn't capitalize on them and they finally did," Wiedemann said. "At times when we did have the opportunity to close it out, we didn't stay aggressive enough."
Dropping the first set changed the dynamic of the game and the Grizzlies' feel for it, and that's something they will have to address, the coach said.
"We can't let losing a set like that affect our momentum as much as this did," Wiedemann explained. "We have to learn from this. We have to learn that our presence has to maintain. These are the types of games we're here to play."
The Grizzlies had bright spots and long point rallies in the remaining two sets, but they couldn't match the intensity and confidence of the Reivers.
The Grizzlies' statistical leaders included sophomore right side hitter Tatjana Trifkovic with eight kills, a .222 attacking percentage and 10.5 points earned; freshman setter Julia Dunning with 26 assists; sophomore middle attacker Keziah Williams with 3.5 blocks; freshman outside attacker Kelly Wiedemann with 14 digs; and sophomore libero Kamryn Artale with a 2.40 passing rating.
Improvements needed on defense and offense
"Defensively, you have to play a solid game against teams like that. We put together a good defensive plan, especially against their two outside hitters, but we definitely have the ability to get better there," Wiedemann said.
"When we were taking their best shot and doing something with it, things went well," she explained. "We just have to pick up more best shots. Kelly stayed aggressive on defense, and it showed in how many hard shots and junk shots she picked up.
"Offensively, we need to find more confidence and presence," the coach added. "Tatjana did a good job of staying aggressive offensively, which we need. When we can combine aggressiveness and efficiency, things will improve for us on the offensive side of the game."
Saturday's game is the type of game the Grizzlies seek out year in and year out, Coach Wiedemann said. "This kind of competition is what we are here for. We are not here to play teams we know we can walk off the floor with a win. We are here to play teams who will challenge us and make us rise up and do what we need to do to get better and get things done."
New phase of season begins
Saturday's game also was the culmination of the beginning of the season. "Now, we enter a new phase of what we're doing and how we go about improving. Region play will begin, and we will start to see some of our toughest opponents again. We see Iowa Western, Tyler and Navarro within the next couple of weeks. The things you need a team to play with – confidence, aggressiveness, calmness – those are things that need to continue to improve. Developing a killer instinct is important. Our talent is there.
"We basically have eight days to work on the mental part of the game, the physical part of the game and the skill development part of the game. The physical part is the aggressiveness. The mental part is how you take what you've learned to get better and what each person can do to help their teammates get better. The skill development part is continuing to work on things so your teammates will trust that you are doing your job," she added.
The Grizzlies will take the court again at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18 when they host the Jefferson College Vikings from Hillsboro for a Region 16/Missouri Community College Athletic Conference game. Don's Auto Service is the game sponsor.
"This is a region game, and region games are important. And, it's representative of what this middle part of the season is about," Wiedemann said. "We need to understand what we do now makes a difference and will help us put ourselves in the position we need to be in at the end of the year. A lot of work will go on between now and then."