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Frustrating finish to Tigers' regular season; MIAA tourney up next

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Saturday's match against University of Central Missouri, ranked No. 6 in NCAA Division II, encapsulated a recent frustrating stretch for the Fort Hays State University volleyball team. The Tigers lost 3-1 and played well in a 25-20 third set victory. But FHSU had continued inconsistencies with its offense and passing. For the fifth time in six matches, Fort Hays hit under .200. The Tigers also committed five reception errors. The Tigers lost for the fifth time in six matches.

"Our passing has fallen off," fourth-year coach Kurt Kohler said. "The more we work on it, it seems like the worse it gets, so if could just focus on our passing, we would get in the game. In that third set out here, we were having perfect passes, and we end up beating them by five. But the rest of the time, we were shanking balls all over. It's something that we have got to fix, but really, it's going to start with that teamwork and everybody having the same goal."

On Tuesday, the Tigers, the No. 7 seed in the eight-team MIAA conference tournament at 23-13 overall, 7-10 in conference play, will travel to Washburn University in Topeka.

Washburn is the tournament's No. 2 seed and ranked third in NCAA Division II at 30-2, 15-2. Start time is 7 p.m. in Lee Arena.

"I don't feel like we are playing as a team right now and we have got to figure that out, just at times playing some selfish ball and that's got to change as we get into the conference tournament," Kohler said.

FHSU finished in a three-way tie with University of Central Oklahoma and Pittsburg State University, but won the tiebreaker against both squads. While FHSU has struggled down the stretch, it still has finished with the most conference victories since it joined the MIAA in 2006 and the most overall wins since a school-record 31-5 season in 2004.

"It's all about confidence, and when we come together as a team, we are unbeatable and it's an awesome feeling," sophomore outside hitter Sara Hewson said.

On Oct. 30, Fort Hays lost 3-1 to Washburn in Topeka and took a 3-0 home loss Sept. 28. However, the home defeat came during a stretch where FHSU played its best volleyball of the season. At home, Fort Hays lost 23-23, 25-21, 28-26, a match that Kohler considers probably his team's best performance of the season.

"I think we've challenged everybody this year," Kohler said. "We just fall apart in certain aspects of the game and just mentally aren't engaged throughout an entire match. I think if we can get everybody on the same page, I think we've got a good shot of making a run."

Fort Hays stands seventh in the conference in hitting percentage (.184) and ninth in kills (12.44 per set). Washburn, a perennial power, stands second in the league in assists and kills. Paced by junior middle hitter Jenna Ulrich, the Tigers are second in the conference in blocks per game (2.18).

Despite some recent struggles, Ulrich has enjoyed a terrific season and ranks seventh in the conference in hitting percentage (.319), 12th in kills (2.71) and first in blocks (1.31). "She is just mentally a strong kid," Kohler said. "She can handle a lot of adversity and continue to play well all of the way through it. She is a great leader. Fun kid to work with, very coachable."

However, Kohler said Ulrich might not earn first-team all-conference because of the strength of the MIAA middle hitters, a group that includes Washburn senior Jessica Fey, who stands second in the conference in hitting percentage (.392).

"When I first came into the conference, it was all about setters and I think that has kind of shifted to where the real talent is in the middle," Kohler said. "I think (Jenna) is one of the best. I think she ranks right up there with any one of them. In most cases, I would love to have her on my team over some of those other kids, because she is hard to read, very unpredictable and it's tough for teams to dig her. I love having her on our side of the net."