Tuesday’s home opener for the Fort Hays State University volleyball team was off to a dream start. The Tigers were in front of fans at Gross Memorial Coliseum for the first time this fall against No.14 University of Nebraska-Kearney, and were clicking on all cylinders.
Fort Hays State had no intention from backing down against one of the conference’s perennial powers — the Lopers had the MIAA’s best record in 2014. A stare down from junior setter Hannah Wagy in the midst of a five-point run by the Tigers in their eventual first-set win signified such emotion.
The dream start, though, turned quickly into a nightmare as the Lopers throttled their way to easy wins the next three sets to hand the Tigers an 0-1 start to their MIAA campaign.
“I think we just got into our heads too much after winning that first one,” senior rightside hitter Mallory Flagor said. “We kinda got too excited and then started over-thinking. We just need to calm down and play our game.”
The Tigers fell behind early to the No. 14 ranked team in the country, but showed the precision that led them to wins in 12 straight sets. Down 13-11, three Tigers recorded kills in the midst of a five-point rally, led by two kills from freshman outside hitter Sydney Dixon to go up 16-12.
Both sides continued to trade points before eventually ending up at a 23-23 tie. The Lopers’ Skyler Erickson picked up one of her four service errors in the set the following point, setting up junior outside hitter Crystal Whitten for the set-clinching kill.
The Tigers methodically moved their way around the Loper blockers to record 17 kills and just two errors in the set. Senior rightside hitter Mallory Flagor led the way for the Tigers with three digs and five kills while Wagy dished out 16 assists. The Tigers offense struggled the rest of the night, as Wagy only picked up 19 assists over the next three sets and the Tigers recorded just 21 kills in the final three sets, one more than their attack error total of 20 in the same span.
“Us not having errors is crucial and that’s what won us the game,” Whitten said. “That and bringing a lot of energy. We just need to do that every time.”
Fort Hays fell behind early and faced a 15-point deficit in the second set at 20-5. The Tigers found life and kept the set alive before eventually falling 25-13. After a nearly flawless first set, the tables turned and the Tigers committed seven errors to the Lopers’ two.
The Tigers and Lopers battled to a 9-9 score to start the third set. Erickson started a six-point streak in favor of the Lopers, who tallied three straight kills before the Tigers were tallied for three attack errors in a row. The Tigers were charged with seven attack errors in the set, which went in favor of UNK 25-12.
Throughout the three sets won by the Lopers, the Tigers were caught leaning the wrong way on multiple occasions as the Lopers’ front line was able to place balls near the back and side lines with ease. Whitten said her squad was just getting too caught up in the moment and not focusing on their assignments.
“We were definitely out of place,” Whitten said. “They were just moving very fast and we were moving very slow.”
The fourth set was all Lopers as the Tigers were victim to 18 kills and seven errors, three on serves, as the Lopers closed the deal 3-1 with a 25-14 win.
The lost sets were quite lopsided in favor of the Lopers but Flagor believes it’s an easy fix to get to where they were in the first set.
“I think just keeping our heads up the whole time,” Flagor said.
“I think we got upset with ourselves when we started making too mistakes. We just need to know that we’re good players.”
Flagor said the youthful Tigers, who played four freshmen, had the right mindset out of the locker room but must work on putting errors behind them as the match moves on.
“I felt like we came out with a lot of fire and then we kinda just got too happy with fighting for the first one,” Flagor said. “We just need to know that like, ‘We’re freshman, we make mistakes’ most of the time. We just need to come out and fight to the end.”
The Tigers (8-5, 0-1 MIAA) play many other conference powers down the road, such as Central Oklahoma, Central Missouri and Washburn, and Flagor felt Tuesday’s competition against one of the best is a learning tool for the squad’s inexperienced players.
“I think that’s really awesome for the freshman, especially coming out against one of the best teams in our conference,” Flagor said. “It’s good for them to see that we are able to beat the teams that are good in our conference. We just have to play like we can and we can win.”
With a Friday match at Emporia starting a five-game road trip for the Tigers, Whitten is assured the Tigers have any problems accounted for.
“We just dropped off,” Whitten said. “We just know what we have to do. We have to pick it up and we’re gonna come out against Emporia stronger.”