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Grizzlies punch ticket to NJCAA national volleyball tournament

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For the 16th time in program history, the Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) Grizzly Volleyball team will play in the NJCAA Division I Women’s National Volleyball Championship Tournament.

The 15th-ranked Grizzlies (17-5) punched their ticket to nationals by defeating Indian Hills Community College 3-2 in the NJCAA Midwest B District Championship Friday evening on the Indian Hills campus in Ottumwa, Iowa. The scores were 25-22, 25-23, 19-25, 25-27, 17-25.

They reached the district championship by defeating Wabash Valley College from Mount Carmel, Illinois, 3-0 earlier Friday in Ottumwa. The scores were 25-11, 25-14, 25-20.

The Grizzlies won’t have to travel far to this year’s national tournament. The three-day event, set for April 15-17, is being hosted by the City of West Plains at the West Plains Civic Center.

“I am so proud of this team,” Grizzly Volleyball Head Coach Paula Wiedemann said. “There’s a lot to be said for how much they believe in each other. The lessons we have learned from the games we have played have paid off time and again, and we can definitely learn something from this game moving forward.

“I’m so happy this team gets to experience what being in the national tournament feels like,” the coach added. “They have worked hard to put themselves in this position, and they will continue to work hard to keep getting better, individually and as a team.

“We have come so far since the beginning of the season. You don’t get to where we are without a lot of work and effort. Our players have learned how to work for each other, to be better teammates, and that details matter. All of those things made them believable to each other, and when you want to work hard for the other people on the court, you can do a lot of good things as a team. It’s a team first mentality,” Wiedemann said.

It took that team first mentality for the Grizzlies to secure their spot in the national tournament. In Friday’s district finals, they found themselves digging out of holes in nearly every set against a tenacious Indian Hills team. In the first two periods, they battled back from early 4- and 6-point deficits, respectively, to win the last three points in each set.

In the third set, the Grizzlies and Warriors kept the contest tight and battled to a 19-19 tie before the Warriors took the set by scoring the last 6 points.

The Grizzlies took an early 3-point lead in the fourth set and maintained a slight edge until late in the period when the Warriors regained ground to tie it at 22-22. The teams swapped points to tie it at 25-25 before the Warriors put the set away scoring the final two points.

Tied at two sets apiece, the Grizzlies and Warriors went into the fifth set knowing they only had to reach 15 points to earn a trip to nationals. The teams traded points to tie it at 3-3. That’s when the Warriors went on a 6-point scoring spree that put the Grizzlies in deep trouble with very little time to come out of it.

But some tenacious play of their own helped the Grizzlies slowly overcome the deficit and tie the set at 13-13. The teams then swapped points again until the Grizzlies broke the 15-15 tie by winning the last two points of the game.

“We put ourselves in a position to finish the game in four sets but didn’t get it done,” Wiedemann said. “You never want to see a team doubt themselves, and these guys haven’t done much of that lately, but it creeped in for a minute in the fourth and fifth sets. But then we got it together and played lights out. You’ve got to love a team that fights, and this team has done nothing but fight.”

Wiedemann credits some of the turnaround in the fifth set to Assistant Coach Susannah Kelley. After calling a time out down 7-11, Wiedemann said Kelley told the Grizzlies the game wasn’t over yet.

“Sus said the perfect thing. She said, ‘Guys, you never know. You can be down and come back in any situation. You just have to keep believing in each other.’ And, to their credit, they kept working,” Wiedemann said.

Sophomore middle blocker Nayla Watkins was a perfect example of working through the struggle, Wiedemann said. “Nayla struggled at the beginning of the fifth set, but she kept working. You have to care about something enough to work through the hard stuff to appreciate the good stuff. I couldn’t have been happier when she came back at the end and got that last block with Kennadi (Harris). I love that for her because it reinforces that working hard, even when things may not be going well, is worth it,” Wiedemann said.

Offensively, the Grizzlies played well against the Warriors. Their attacking percentage as a team was .326, their passing was consistent in creating multiple options, and five Grizzlies scored double digits in points earned.

“I’m really pleased that we had five players with double digit points,” Wiedemann said. “We have to have everyone contributing, which is what we’re getting and it’s awesome.

Those five were sophomore outside attacker Maju Loureiro and freshman outside attacker Imani Nicholson, each with 16 points earned; freshman middle blocker Manuela Bibinbe and freshman outside attacker Harris each with 11; and freshman right side hitter Angie Hardison with 10.5.

Offensively, Nicholson led the Grizzlies in kills with 14, followed by Loureiro with 13 and Bibinbe with 10. Sophomore setter Julieta Campana had a team-leading 29 assists, and freshman setter Ashton Wildermuth had 26. Nicholson also led in passing rating with 2.50, followed by freshman libero Lauren Weber with 2.20 and Loureiro with 2.08.

On defense, the Grizzlies were led by Watkins and Hardison with 2.5 blocks each. Loureiro and Harris each recorded two blocks. Weber led the team in digs with 33, and Nicholson and Hardison each recorded two service aces.

“Defensively, we did some good things, but we needed to make better adjustments to create good transition point opportunities,” Wiedemann said. “We put ourselves in that hole in the fifth set because we didn’t keep the ball off the floor in points where we should have. We weren’t communicating quick enough to make the adjustments needed in certain situations.

“That goes back to what we talk about all the time – our communication and movement without the ball dictates how good we are on defense,” Wiedemann added. “We’ll watch film and it will be obvious how much better we could be defensively in certain situations if we were communicating more effectively.”

In the semifinal game against Wabash Valley, also nicknamed the Warriors, Wiedemann said, “we played really well. We took care of the ball and did the things we needed to do. They were a good team. We had to play through points, which we did well. We were very efficient.”

Statistical leaders offensively were Loureiro with 11 kills and a 2.54 passing rating, Hardison with a .667 attacking percentage, and Campana with 21 assists. Defensively, Bibinbe and Nicholson each recorded two blocks, Loureiro and Hardison each had two service aces, and Weber had 23 digs. Loureiro led in points earned with 13.

“This whole experience will help us be better,” Wiedemann said of the district playoffs. “From playing well to struggling for points, no one is going to go away at this point. We have to stay consistent in how we handle things, stay neutral and do our jobs. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that we have an opportunity to play again another day and make the most of it, and I don’t think that will be lost on this group. They believe in what they do.”

For more information about the Grizzly Volleyball program, visit www.msuwpgrizzlies.com.

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