West Plains, Mo. – Missouri State University-West Plains's hope for an automatic bid to the 2018 NJCAA Division I Women's National Volleyball Championship Tournament slipped away Saturday evening.
The Grizzlies (18-16) lost a heart-breaking, five-set game to No. 5 Iowa Western Community College 12-25, 25-22, 25-23, 19-25, 10-15 in the NJCAA District J Championship at the West Plains Civic Center.
There is still a slim chance the Grizzlies might receive an at-large bid to the 16-team national tournament, set for Nov. 15-17 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Decisions concerning the two at-large bids will come later this week.
Until then, the Grizzlies will reflect on what could have been.
"Since this was the fourth time we've played each other this season, we knew what to expect out of each other," Grizzly Volleyball Head Coach Paula Wiedemann said. "They're a very good team and they had their way with us earlier in the season in the first two games. They have been a top five team all year and were at No. 2 when beat them in four sets a couple of weeks ago.
"To have played them as well as we have the past two times shows just how much we've improved as a team. On Saturday, they came out swinging, we took it and started swinging back," the coach said.
But Saturday's game against the Reivers also revealed areas that still need improvement by the Grizzlies.
"Defensively, we blocked well overall, even though we should have made a some adjustments that could have made it better," Wiedemann explained. "That was a piece we knew we had to do well at the beginning of the game to get us set up defensively, but we had too many defensive errors that kept us from getting a chance to earn points offensively and keep our momentum.
"They out dug us defensively, and we were still in the game," she added. "Converting just a handful of our zero digs makes a big difference when the score is that close."
The Grizzlies were led in blocks by sophomore middle attacker Yileen Ng He with 3.5, followed closely by sophomore middle attacker Keziah Williams and sophomore right side attacker Tatjana Trifkovic, each with three.
"Offensively, we're still getting production and efficiency through our outsides. Even though we got 21 kills from everywhere else, we gave up too many points through errors," the coach said.
Kelly Wiedemann and freshman outside attacker Camilly Cristiny led the Grizzlies in kills with 12 apiece, and Trifkovic added 10. Cristiny also led the team in attacking percentage with .360 and points earned with 13.5.
"Taking care of the ball is a big piece of staying efficient, and we needed more people taking care of the ball," the coach said. "We passed well, overall, and had opportunities to be more productive offensively out of serve receive, and we needed to take advantage of that."
Freshman setter Julia Dunning had 41 assists, and Artale led the team in passing rating with 2.64.
Bouncing back from a slow start
After starting slow in the first set, the Grizzlies bounced back in the second and third sets, showing just how good they could be. But in the fourth and fifth sets, the team from Council Bluffs regained the upper hand through the play of their middle.
"In that fourth and fifth set, we needed to make more of an adjustment against their middle attack. We didn't do enough to make them think about doing something else. It's frustrating when you know defensively you can do that and don't," Wiedemann said.
"Ultimately, it came down to us taking care of the ball better and forcing them to adjust their offense away from their middle, and we didn't do a good enough job with that late in the game," she added.
The Grizzlies reached the district championship by defeating Vincennes University, Vincennes, Indiana, 25-14, 25-16, 25-8, earlier in the day at the civic center.
"Against Vincennes, we came out and made a statement," the coach said. "Vincennes can be a good team, but we were a presence on the floor and didn't back off."
Kelly Wiedemann and Trifkovic led the team in kills with 10 each, while Williams paced the Grizzlies in attacking efficiency with a .462 percentage. Dunning provided 32 assists.
Defensively, Williams recorded three blocks, Artale had 15 digs, and Kelly Wiedemann served up two aces. Wiedemann also led the team in points earned with 14.
"Credit to our kids because they played really well in all phases of the game and came out with a strong presence on the floor. That was nice to see. Vincennes didn't know what hit them," Coach Wiedemann said.
Growing into a different team
Although the season in all likelihood is coming to an end for the Grizzlies, Coach Wiedemann is happy with the growth she has seen.
"We are not the same team we were at the beginning of the year. We have had some players really step up and learn to compete at a high level, and we were getting leadership out of some of our younger players. It definitely gives us something to build on moving forward.
"I'm proud of what this group has worked through," Coach Wiedemann added. "I feel like, in the last three to four weeks, we really have improved as a team and put ourselves in a position to win some big games."
Even so, the end of the season comes with some regret.
"It's disappointing to lose such a good, close game against a top five team. It's frustrating when you know how close they were to doing something great and didn't get it done," she added. "When the Reivers bring their "A" game, which they did Saturday, it makes it hard to know that we were a few points from qualifying. We were right there with them."