After one set, Fort Hays State looked poised to deliver the upset of the season in MIAA volleyball.
The Tigers came out brimming with energy against No. 2-ranked Nebraska-Kearney and took the first set, 25-23, on Tuesday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“We came out with a game plan and it worked the first game, and I honestly think it shocked our own team,” first-year Tigers coach Jessica Wood-Atkins said. “They kind of sat back like, ‘That really just happened.’ We keep telling them that they can play with anybody.
“… Kearney didn’t expect us to come out firing, so we took advantage of that in game one, but they adjusted pretty quickly."
From the second set on, the No. 2-ranked Lopers took charge of the match and showed why they’re one of the top teams in the country, and the Tigers struggled to regain their first-set success, falling 3-1 to UNK.
Kearney (25-1, 11-1 MIAA) stayed in control in the last three sets, earning 25-13, 25-13, 25-14 wins over the Tigers, who dropped to 8-16 overall and 2-10 in the MIAA.
The Lopers boasted a .329 hitting percentage for the match, hitting .467 during the second set. The Tigers hit .046 for the match and had eight hitting errors in the second set and nine in each the third and fourth sets.
“We started trying to do things that we don’t normally do,” Wood-Atkins said. “I think we got a little overanxious. We started cutting each other off. We started getting a little too excited trying to make those plays instead of just staying steady and running our system and capitalizing on Kearney’s mistakes.”
Senior outside hitter Azlyn Cassaday helped lead the Tigers’ upset bid early on and finished with a team-high 15 kills and added 10 digs.
“Azlyn stepped up like the senior captain she is,” Wood-Atkins said. “That’s something that we need, especially when we’re playing up and down. I think she did a tremendous job of keeping the girls focused and really being a go-to hitter and getting the job done for us when it was tight.”
Ashley Webb added eight kills for the Tigers. Bre Becker had 34 assists while Abby Groth and Taylor White each had 13 digs.
Kendall Schroer paced the Lopers with 19 kills while Julianne Jackson had 15.
The strong first set may have carried over from a big weekend for Fort Hays, which picked up its first two conference wins against Southwest Baptist and Missouri Southern.
“I think that we stayed focused instead of doing some ups and downs and taking a breath here and there,” Wood-Atkins said of her team’s performances over the weekend. “We stayed focused from point one to the end point, and I think that’s what our team needs to do. We don’t have the capacity to take it easy or take a few plays off. We just don’t have the strength there. I think our girls did a great job last week of staying focused and coming ready.”
The Tigers showed another sign of growth by winning a set against Kearney, Wood-Atkins said.
“If you take a set off the No. 2 team, that’s a step forward,” Wood-Atkins said.
FHSU will look for more progress this weekend in two home matches against Washburn and Emporia State. The Tigers will play the No. 11-ranked Ichabods at 6 p.m. Friday before facing Emporia State at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t think (Washburn is) going to be surprised by us, having taking a set off of Kearney, so we don’t have that advantage,” Wood-Atkins said. “But I do think our team is getting stronger than where we started out at.”