MT Volleyball falls to Sun Belt-leading Hilltoppers
Ranked 20th in the nation, Western Kentucky University (18-3, 4-0 Sun Belt) looked every bit the part of its national ranking, handing Middle Tennessee volleyball (4-15, 1-3 Sun Belt) a three-set loss (18-25, 17-25, 19-25) in front of a crowd of 400 at Alumni Memorial Gym in Murfreesboro Tuesday night.
“I think we just got away from our game plan, and that’s pretty much it,” senior outside hitter Brandi Waller said after the match.
Blue Raider freshman outside hitter Chelsea Ross opened the match with a pair of aces to give the home team an early lead, but the disciplined play of the Hilltoppers proved too much for a young MT squad that, at times, featured six freshmen in the lineup.
Controversy struck early, as the ball bounced into the rafters of the AMG multiple times in the first set. Officials met to discuss how to call the points, and MT Head Coach Matt Peck was visibly dissatisfied with the official ruling.
The Blue Raiders fell behind 14-7 midway through the first set, but a 6-1 run brought the score to 15-13. The Hilltoppers regained their composure and took the set 25-18.
WKU threatened to run away with the match in the second set, dominating the frame and never allowing the MT to get closer than 8-6 before winning the set 25-17.
However, the third and final set would not be easily conceded by the Blue Raiders.
MT fought back in the third set, tying the game at six all before a 6-0 run by WKU gave the Hilltoppers a somewhat-comfortable lead. The Blue Raiders fought back twice into the set with 4-0 and 3-0 runs thanks in part to four final-set kills from Waller to come within shouting distance of the Sun Belt-leading team from Bowling Green, Ky.
The Hilltoppers would score four of the set’s final five points to take the set 25-19 and the match 3-0.
The Blue Raiders were out hit .402 to .149 in the match and committed 20 errors compared to only 10 for WKU. Ross and Waller led the team with 9 kills each. Shelby Anderton had 25 of the team’s 34 assists, and Bri McCombs led the way with eight digs.
MT lost in straight sets for the ninth time this season, and the team’s 15 losses are the most for the program since 2003, the year before Peck took charge of the program.
A mixture of injuries and attrition has decimated this year’s squad and led to a renaissance of youth for the 2012 team that has had its share of growing pains. Senior Ashley Adams, a former honorable-mention All-America outside hitter was is no longer with the team after the South Alabama loss during the team’s last home stand. At least four other members of the Blue Raider rotation are out due to injury.
There may be hope of an improved on-court product by season’s end and a possible eighth-consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, though, if the team can capture the Sun Belt Tournament Championship.
MT may have a couple of injured players back by the Sun Belt Tournament scheduled for Nov. 15-17 and should have a more experienced team by year’s end with so many young players factoring into the weekly rotation.
“It’s going to get better by the end of the season, but it’s just going to be hard to get there,” Ross said.
Only the top eight of the 11-team Sun Belt compete in the post-season conference tournament. The Blue Raiders’ 1-3 conference record has them in a three-way tie for seventh place with FIU and Louisiana.
With a win over UL already in the books and FIU coming to the AMG on Oct. 13, MT’s fate rest squarely in the team’s hands, as they will face 11 more Sun Belt opponents before the season ends.
The Blue Raiders take the court again on Oct. 5 when they begin a three-game road stint at ULM in Monroe, La. before playing at North Texas and Austin Peay.
MT will have a chance to avenge Tuesday’s loss when it plays at WKU to finish out the Sun Belt regular season on Nov. 9.