In its 8-9 campaign to date — now under an interim head coach — the Fort Hays State University volleyball team has made a bad habit of starting slow coming out of the locker room after intermission.
That’s a big reason why the Tigers, who fell 3-1 to No. 5 ranked Nebraska-Kearney on Tuesday at Gross Memorial Coliseum, aren’t going to focus on a rough third set that ultimately blew FHSU’s momentum.
Rather, the Tigers are going to build off a strong second and fourth set where they gave visiting MIAA foe UNK all it could handle.
FHSU fell 25-19 in the first set, but then rallied to take the second against the Lopers, 25-23.
“They definitely came out in that second set, and they proved to themselves, and to everyone in this gym, that they definitely have the talent that it takes to be a top contender in this conference,” said interim coach Brandi Fairbank, in her second week since taking over after the departure of Kurt Kohler. “I’m proud of them for that. No one really saw that coming against the No. 5 team.”
Then the intermission happened, and like they have this season, the Tigers had a rough start in the third set. UNK (14-1 overall, 3-0 MIAA) jumped out to a 6-0 lead and never looked back, winning 25-15.
“I think we did play really well, we just have to work on finishing stronger,” Tiger senior Callie Christensen said. “I really thought we came together, especially in that second set — and the fourth set.”
FHSU (8-9, 0-3) again fell behind 6-0 and trailed 10-2 at one point, but ultimately rallied to tie things up in the fourth, but a few key mistakes helped the Lopers to a 4-0 run and eventual 25-18 victory to seal their 14th win.
“We tend to prove ourselves, we take a couple sets off these really good teams,” Christensen said. “We just need to focus on finishing stronger.”
With the exception of the third set, the match was back-and-forth all night, with an abundance of FHSU’s points coming at the net on blocks by Christensen, freshman Tatum Bartels and senior Kylie Rollman. The trio combined for 16 blocks, while Bartels racked up a .292 hitting percentage with nine kills.
“She was on fire,” Fairbank said of Bartels, the freshman from Phillipsburg. “They could not find away to stop here. They had great middles and she was able to still find a way to put the ball.”
Logan Wallick, another freshman, had 11 kills to lead the way for FHSU, while Rollman had 10. Junior Sydney Dixon added 10. Redshirt freshman libero Taylor White collected 23 digs, one of four in double figures, while freshman Amirah Bentley had 38 assists.
UNK got 17 kills from Tara Ziegelbein and 24 digs from Ellie McDonnell.
The young Tiger club will play its third straight ranked opponent Friday when FHSU travels to Edmond, Okla., to face No. 9 ranked University of Central Oklahoma.
But the way FHSU played Tuesday — minus the third set — is a building point.
“The best part about this conference is we see the top ranked teams first — and we get to see them again,” Christensen said.