Mental toughness was the primary focus and a hot topic for coach Jessica Biegert as the regular season drew to a close for her Kansas Wesleyan volleyball team.
She saw improvement in the Coyotes’ resiliency and perseverance during last Saturday’s five-set victory over Oklahoma Wesleyan inside Mabee Arena, winning the fifth set 15-13 after dropping the third and fourth sets.
The trend reached a crescendo Wednesday with two pressure-packed Kansas Conference victories over Saint Mary at Mabee Arena – one set in the first match particularly noteworthy and nearly historic.
After winning two of the first three sets in the opening match the Coyotes prevailed in an epic fourth set 40-38 for a 3-1 victory (21-25, 25-18, 25-16, 40-38). They followed with heart-stopping 3-2 victory in the second match 12-25, 25-19, 21-25, 25-17, 15-12.
The Coyotes (20-12 overall) finished the regular season with a 16-8 conference record, good for fourth place in the final standings and a bye in the first round of the KCAC Tournament that begins Saturday. Quarterfinals are scheduled for April 1 at the site of the higher seeded team. Semifinals and finals will be played April 9-10 at the Sports Arena in Hutchinson.
The Coyotes fended off 12 set points in the marathon game – the last at 35-34. The score fell short of the NAIA record of 46-44 but would have been an NCAA Division II record.
“None of us have ever experienced it before,” said libero Emily Monson (SO/Cheney, Kan.), who was named the KCAC and NAIA Defender of the Week on Tuesday. “It was fun to experience, and we’re glad we came out on the winning side of it, but I think we’d rather finish at 25.”
The second match was equally frenetic. Trailing 2-1 and down 11-9 in the fourth set KWU outscored the Spires 16-6 and forced the decisive fifth set, which was close the entire way.
“The Oklahoma Wesleyan fight Saturday kind of paid off for us tonight,” said Biegert, who likewise said she had never experienced a match of that length. “It just gave them that extra boost in confidence that they could do it again tonight against a tougher team.
“We only had the advantage three times out of all those points. If you can push through that it’s huge.”
Monson agreed mental toughness was the key.
“That’s been our focus a lot this whole year,” she said. “We started in August, it’s March, we’ve had a long season and that’s something we’ve been working on a lot in practice. We do a lot of situations where the team’s ahead by 10 points or something like that, so we have to persevere and come back.”
She said the change began the second half of the season.
“We decided that we’re playing this long, we might as well make it worth it. We just kind of made that switch in our heads to want it,” she said.
Monson said she and her teammates are ready for the postseason and their last two regular-season victories are proof.
“It tells me that we’re a completely different team than we saw in August,” she said. “I think we’re so much mentally tougher than we were at the beginning and I think we have a great chance in the tournament coming up.
“(The bye) just shows that all of our hard work has paid off, that what we’ve worked for since August has worked out for us.”
After losing the first set in the opening match KWU took control of the second set with a 6-2 run that made it 20-14. The Coyotes took a quick 5-0 lead in the third set and never looked back, the Spires getting no closer than three.
Then came the monstrous fourth set. The Coyotes were seemingly in control leading 18-12 but Saint Mary (12-12) scored eight of the next 10 points. Tied at 20 KWU scored three straight points and led 23-20 but the Spires scored four unanswered points and reached the first set point 24-23.
An intense and exhausting see-saw battle ensued until a Saint Mary attack error and match-ending kill by Morgan Bryand (SO/Wichita, Kan.) finally ended the struggle. The Spires couldn’t close the deal despite a dozen consecutive set-point opportunities.
KWU hit .244 and was led by Maddy Beckett (SO/Halstead, Kan.)’s 24 kills – she was named the KCAC Attacker of the Week on Tuesday. Bryand had 16 kills and Elizabeth Hardacre (SO/Kensington, Kan.) had 14; Cortney Hanna (SO/Lawrence, Kan.) set the offense with 32 assists and Josie Deckinger (FR/Wichita, Kan.) had 25. Monson led the defense with 38 digs while Beckett had 20.
After losing the first set again in the second match KWU took control with a 9-0 run in the second that made it 12-6 and a 7-2 burst later sealed the deal. The Coyotes trailed 17-9 in the third set but rallied and tied it twice (19-19 and 20-20) before the Spires scored five of the final six points. KWU cruised in the fourth set after a 9-2 surge made it 18-13.
Saint Mary led once in the fifth set, 2-1, but trailed just 13-12 before Beckett ended the suspense and evening with back-to-back kills.
The Coyotes hit at a .184 percentage and were led by Beckett’s 14 kills while Hardacre had 13 and Chelsea James (SO/Wichita, Kan.) 11. Deckinger had 29 assists and Hanna 10. Monson again led the defense with 30 digs and Beckett 17.