MARSHALL - The third set of the 2013 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference/ US Bank Tournament had all the makings of a good comeback story for No. 7 Southwest Minnesota State University, the three-seed in the high-caliber competition, but No. 18 Wayne State College (Neb.), the sixth seed, didn't let that happen and kicked the Mustangs from the tournament in straight sets Wednesday at SMSU.
SMSU won the tournament for the first time in program history last year and had hoped to defend that title again this season, but the team was unable to rise the the level needed to push past the Wildcats and fell 25-15, 25-21, 33-31.
"We've always had dogfights with Wayne and to be honest, I was disappointed in how we played, especially in Games 1 and 2," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "Unfortunately, it's been a lot like that lately, where we tried to crank it up at the end. But then it's too late."
In a game where the little things really count, WSC was the shaper team, played with more consistency and with more of a sense of urgency than SMSU did. The Wildcats outhit the Mustangs, finishing the match with a .317 hitting percentage compared to SMSU's .163. WSC also outblocked its opponent, collecting 12 total blocks compared to SMSU's two.
"They hit .317 against us and that's a problem," Culhane said. "We also got outblocked drastically. I thought they were just better than us in all skill areas (Wednesday). They played with passion and wanted to get to the weekend and I think you have to give them credit for that. They're a good team."
Cori Hobbs hammered down 19 kills, hitting .442 for the Wildcats, while Elizabeth Gebhardt pounded down 11 kills and hit .435. As a team, WSC recorded only seven hitting errors and two serving errors, while making things difficult for the Mustangs, who committed 28 hitting errors and six serving errors in the contest.
"I don't think we handled the situation very well," Culhane said. "The thing I was most impressed with about them is that they swung with a purpose and we didn't swing with a purpose. When you're playing a really good team, you need to play well, too. A lot of that was that they just didn't allow us to play well. They carried play at us."
In the third set, the score was tied 12 different times as the two teams battled into the 30-point range. The Mustangs trailed for nearly half of the set, but climbed to within two points at 18-16 on an ace serve from Claire Sames. Back-to-back kills from McKell Anderson and Whitney Burmeister knotted the score at 18-all. The teams continued to trade points back and forth, but the Wildcats eventually came out on top 33-31.
Rachel Westby collected a match-high 18 digs for SMSU, while Anderson had 11. Anderson and Abbey Thissen led the Mustangs offense with 12 kills apiece, while Burmeister contributed 11 and Sarah Parker 10. Sames added seven kills, a solo block and one assisted block.
With the win, WSC (22-9) advances to the semifinal round, taking on Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday, while the Mustangs (23-7) are eliminated from the tournament. SMSU's season now hangs in the balance as the team is forced to wait for the NCAA Central Region rankings to determine the field of eight eligible competitors. The Mustangs were ranked No. 5 in the latest rankings, but a loss in the first round of the conference tournament certainly doesn't help their cause.
"Obviously, you don't move up in the rankings when you lose," Culhane said. "Our only hope right now is that we can find a way to get in the region. We won't know for a week and a half. But this weekend tournament will tell a lot. We may not even be in it."
While the Mustangs will have to wait to see if they make the Central Region tournament, which they've done for 10 straight years, all they can do now is get back to the basics and practice hard.
"Anytime you lose, it's not going to feel good and obviously, you don't want to lose anytime, but losing during this time in the season, I think that it was the hardest hit," Parker said. "But there is no one to blame but ourselves. We just have to hope that all the hard work throughout the season is going to get us into regionals. This was a tough loss for us. But now we just have to go back and practice and work on the things that we need to work on and get ourselves back in the region (tournament)."
If SMSU is selected for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, the team plans to make the best of its opportunity. Once they make the tournament, the rest if up to them, Parker said.
"If we get in the region, our first thought is game by game, not even the whole match, but just the one game," she said. "Every set, we have to focus really hard and no matter who we play, we need to give it full effort every single time."
ServiCE Aces: SMSU-McKell Anderson 2, Claire Sames 2, Rachel Westby 1, Bailey Kirchhoff 1; WSC-Michaela Mestl 1, Katie Hughes 1.
Kills: SMSU-Anderson 12, Abbey Thissen 12, Whitney Burmeister 11, Sarah Parker 10, Sames 7; WSC-Cori Hobbs 19, Elizabeth Gebhardt 11, Alyssa Frauendorfer 8, Lexi Malm 4, Hughes 3.
Digs: SMSU-Westby 18, Anderson 11, Emilee Gutzmer 9, Burmeister 9, Ellen Degler 4, Thissen 3, Parker 1, Sames 1, Kirchhoff 1; WSC-C. VanGroningen 13, Hughes 11, Hobbs 10, Leisa McClintock 10, Mestl 4, Frauendorfer 3, Malm 2.
Set Assists: SMSU-Gutzmer 44, Westby 4, Thissen 1; WSC-McClintock 36, VanGroningen 5, Frauendorfer 1.
Blocks (solo-assistED): SMSU-Sames 1-1, Gutzmer 0-1; WSC-Frauendorfer 0-8, Hobbs 0-6, Malm 0-4, Gebhardt 0-4, McClintock 0-1, Hughes 0-1.