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Tiger volleyball falls 3-0 to Pitt

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In coach Kurt Kohler's eyes, his Fort Hays State University volleyball team had a solid spring and continued to improve. The Tigers had two good weeks of fall practice. FHSU returned five all-conference players, including senior middle hitter Jenna Ulrich, who was expected to produce at an All-American caliber level after a big 2012 season.

Then, FHSU stepped on the court at the season-opening Hawaii tournament 17 days ago.

"It looks like we have never seen a volleyball," Kohler said.

Fort Hays finished 0-5 in Hawaii and has lost its first three MIAA matches. That included a 3-0 (25-22, 25-15, 26-24) loss to Pittsburg State University on Saturday afternoon at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Kohler said he was "really confused" with his 0-8 team. Virtually the same squad went 23-14 last year.

"It's embarrassing right now," Kohler said.

It's reminiscent of Kohler's first two seasons where the Tigers often had trouble playing with leads. Opponents have outscored Fort Hays 24-3 in sets this season. In the third set, FHSU had game point at 24-23, but the Gorillas (4-7, 1-2 MIAA) scored three straight points for the victory.

Senior outside hitter Madison Schwartz delivered a frustrated kick in the air after the final point and was near tears after the match. Junior outside hitter Sara Hewson let out a big sigh as the Tigers walked through the handshake line.

"We are just struggling right now," Schwartz said.

Ulrich and Kohler said the team has mental issues in matches, problems that haven't shown up in practice. Ulrich labeled the team "fearless" in practice; the Tigers make a mistake and then quickly move on. In matches, Fort Hays often has letdowns that turn into big runs.

"When you get to this level and you are good enough, you just play," Ulrich said. "You just let your body do what it knows. We were out there and everyone of us gets in these little slumps where we are thinking, 'This way, now this way, now jump.' We are very, very mental."

In the first set, FHSU fell down 5-1, but came back to tie at 16. At 21 all, the Gorillas finished on a 4-1 run.

"We've said this before, we play not to lose instead of playing to win," Ulrich said.

Kohler used multiple combinations, including three setters in juniors Libby Ary and Kelsey Broadwell and freshman Raegan Vanderplas. Schwartz struggled in a 3-1 loss to the University of Central Oklahoma on Friday night and Kohler benched her in the first set in favor of freshman Haley Corkill.

"Trying to find any combination that will work," Kohler said. "Nothing is."

Schwartz played the final two sets and hit a team-high .333 with seven kills. Freshman Rebekah Spainhour, expected to be a backup at the start of the season, saw ample playing time in two sets.

Four regulars hit .224 or above in 2012. This year, no one with more than 10 attacks is above .208.

"I don't know what is happening between practice and when we step on the court for a game, why we are so uptight," Kohler said. "We are horrible right now, 0-8 we don't have anything to lose. We might as well play relaxed."

In the second set, FHSU started with a 5-1 run, but Pittsburg State quickly tied the game at 10.

"We have seen glimpses of just how amazing we are," Ulrich said. "We know we can be there. It's just more frustrating because we know we are good."

PSU scored its final six points of the set on a Tiger blocking error and five straight attack errors. FHSU led nearly all of the third set, including 20-16, but the Gorillas scored four straight points to tie the match. Crystal Whitten paced Pittsburg State with 18 kills and a .325 hitting percentage.

"Our leadership on the court just needs to step up and say, 'We are going to win this game,'" Kohler said. "Quit talking about it, but actually put out the effort to do it."