Hornets deny Eagles crown
Everything was going according to plan for the Eastern Washington University volleyball team. The Eagles won the first game and maintained a small lead late in the second game.
“And then we remembered we’re a young team, oh, my gosh,” EWU interim coach Irene Matlock said.
Not the ideal trait to exhibit against a seasoned team like Sacramento State, which rallied to pull out the second game and completely dominated the next two for a 24-30, 30-28, 30-11, 30-17 victory Friday in front of a season-high crowd of 1,072 at Reese Court.
EWU needed a win to earn a share of the championship. Instead, the Eagles (14-14, 12-4 Big Sky) will be the third seed in the Big Sky tournament next week in Sacramento and will face Montana or Northern Arizona in its opening match. Sacramento State (26-6, 13-2) earned its third straight Big Sky title and can win an outright championship if it defeats Portland State (19-7, 12-3) tonight. The Hornets and Vikings have first-round tournament byes.
After taking a 28-26 lead in the second game, EWU was outscored 64-28 the rest of the way.
“There’s actually a term for this – regression to the mean,” Matlock said. “It’s a math term. We’ve been playing at this (high) level and then all of sudden we have this incredible pressure, historic pressure, and we dropped to our average instead of playing up here. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a lesson to be learned.”
While EWU regressed, Sacramento State soared. The Hornets’ hitting percentages went from .041 to .151 to .448 to .359.
“The first game we passed their serve so poorly we couldn’t even set our middles and it put a lot of pressure on our outsides,” said coach Debby Colberg, who will retire after the season, concluding a distinguished 32-year career at Sacramento State. “At the break (following the second game) we talked that we were just going to have to do that better and they did. And then we served really well and that kept them off balance. When you do that, it makes it easy to block because you can predict who the ball is going to be set to.”
Early on, it was EWU that dominated. Ashley Cook, Hayley Hills and Jacque Brown combined for 15 kills in the first game. On one telling point, Mandy Daniels had a great dig and Ashley Hamilton’s pancake dig led to a kill by Brown. Cook’s kill down the line sealed a 30-24 win.
“We played as a team – there was chemistry there,” Hills said.
EWU fell behind in the second game, but surged in front on consecutive kills by Cook and Hills. Hamilton won a joust at the net, giving EWU a 28-26 lead, but the Hornets ran off the next four points.
“I think we were too confident,” said Hills, who finished with a team-high 17 kills. “When the score is 28-26, there’s not a lot of time left and you have to push and finish when it counts. I think we let a lot of balls drop and we hoped for a lot of balls to be out. Instead of following the line and chasing it, we were like, ‘Please let this ball be out.’ ”
Sacramento State cruised in the next two games. EWU’s 11 points in the third game matched its lowest output of the season.
Missie Stidham, after a rocky start, rebounded to lead Sacramento State with 22 kills. Jennifer Ferguson added 15 kills and Lindsay Haupt chipped in 12 kills and 11 blocks. Sacramento State had 17 blocks to EWU’s three.
EWU has made a habit of comebacks and five-game victories, but the Hornets wanted no part of it.
“It was certainly going through my mind,” Colberg said. “On the bench after the third game, I said to my assistant, ‘It’s either win in four or lose in five.’ ”
The Eagles saw their eight-match winning streak end, but they hope to get another crack at the Hornets next week. Matlock reminded her team of its impressive run through the Big Sky after starting the season 1-9.
“If you reflect back on conference play, they’ve done a fabulous job,” Matlock said. “They were in the hunt – how good is that? They’ve done a great job, especially from where we started.
“They’re feeling really bad and they shouldn’t because they’ve played incredibly well through conference play. And we have to be pleased with that.”