Still in search of a true signature win, Northwest Missouri State's volleyball team has another chance to get one tonight when it takes on No. 7 Central Missouri at 7 p.m. in Warrensburg.
The Bearcats (11-8, 5-1) have lost both matches to top 10 opponents this season and are seeking to end a 12-game losing streak to UCM that dates back to 2005.
"I think that in the past as a team you walk into the Multi-Purpose Building and it's big," said Northwest head volleyball coach Amy Phelps. "It's getting them to believe they belong in the gym with them. Not only do they belong, but they can beat them. It's just going to take a consistent team exploiting their weaknesses."
Central Missouri (15-3, 7-0) sits atop the MIAA by a game over No. 1 Nebraska-Kearney, but has beaten only one of the other top-five teams in the MIAA and that was fifth-place Truman State in five.
All three of Central's losses are to teams ranked in the top 15 of the AVCA Poll. They've also beaten No. 10 Indianapolis, No. 17 Metro State and No. 21 Lewis in five.
An Elite Eight squad a year ago, UCM ranks third in the MIAA in kills and fourth in hitting percentage.
Senior Bradye Peniston is third in the MIAA with a .377 hitting percentage and sits fourth in kills per set. Junior setter Julia Bates is the league's second-leading passer.
Junior Taylor Goodness, Washburn transfer Aubri Renshaw and University of Arkansas transfer Hillary McCormick are their other main attackers.
"I think they're down in a couple key areas they weren't down in last year," said Phelps. "They have some freshmen and we know freshmen can be inconsistent. It's really going to be about serve and pass. If we can stay in system and get them out of system, whoever is the most consistent with that is going to win."
The Bearcats are playing their first MIAA opponent since being swept at Truman State on Sept. 29.
Northwest took on four Great American Conference teams at the Lady Blues Classic and finished the weekend 2-2. Since a season-high four-game win streak, the Bearcats have leveled off a bit with a 3-4 record in their last seven matches.
"I think where we're struggling a little bit is to get over what mistakes we made and just move on as a team," said Phelps. "Unforced errors are starting to be a problem for us because we're feeling a lot of pressure. We've got to grow as a team just like everyone else and do what needs to happen to win."
While ranking in the bottom half of the league in hitting percentage, digs and kills and last in blocks, Northwest remains the MIAA's top serving team with 126 aces and 1.83 per set.
Page 2 of 3 - Freshman Dallas Gardner's 32 service aces are the most in the MIAA and teammate Kirsten Hudgens ranks second. Libero Tori Beckman ranks second in digs with 5.30 per set.
Sophomore Brooke Bartosh leads Northwest with 208 kills but is outside the top 10 of the league in hitting percentage.
Freshman steps up
One of the main bright spots for Northwest during Saturday's 3-1 loss to Harding (Ark.) in their final match of the Lady Blues Classic was the play of 6-0 freshman outside hitter Shelby Duren.
Receiving her most extensive playing time of the year, Duren responded with a career-high 15 kills on a solid .143 percentage. Duren's kill total exceeded that of primary outsides Abby Graves and Bartosh who combined for 11.
"We are still looking for a second left-side position, someone to be consistent and step in and do that," said Phelps. "Shelby is a player that has more shot selection, so if she has two blockers in front of her, she's able to battle them a little bit better. She has a little bit of stank in her and she likes that challenge. I felt putting her in there against Harding, who is a good blocking team, would be a good match for her and she took the challenge like I thought she would. She was able to find ways to get kills which is huge."
Duren's increased presence on the floor came at the expense of senior Kelsey Larson who appeared in just one set in the match. She also played just one set earlier in the day against East Central (Okla.) after appearing in all eight the day before.
Larson is hitting just .066 on the year and has yet to reach double-digits in kills, although she set her season-high with nine against Southern Nazarene over the weekend.
Phelps says future playing time at that spot will hinge on how each player performs.
"Sometimes we need more leadership and maturity, so Kelsey Larson gets to play," said Phelps. "Sometimes we need more kills because maybe Abby or Brooke or our middles aren't creating those kills as well. It really comes down to a game-by-game-basis."
A subtle personnel change on defense has helped facilitate Northwest Missouri State's best defensive stretch of the season.
Since making junior Jordan Albright the central defender on Northwest's back line, the Bearcats have allowed only one goal in the last four matches with three shutouts during that span.
Northwest took a pair of 1-0 wins from Emporia State and Washburn over the weekend, extending its unbeaten steak to four.
The Bearcats (7-3-2, 5-1-1) are currently tied with Central Missouri for second place in the MIAA with 16 points.
Page 3 of 3 - Northwest has two winnable road matches upcoming Thursday against Nebraska-Kearney and Saturday with Fort Hays State.
The Tigers (7-5, 3-4) are seventh in the MIAA. Nebraska-Kearney (6-6-1, 1-5-1) is down in 11th place.
Northwest Missouri State's women's golf team wrapped a pretty bow around its most successful fall season ever with a first place finish at the Bearcat Fall Classic Friday.
With miserable conditions present both days, the Bearcats won their home event for the first time in program history by a 16-stroke margin over rival Missouri Western.
Northwest shot 325 on the second day and finished the tournament at 656.
Sophomore Steph Charteris tied a program-record with a final round score of 73, jumping from third place to first ahead of teammate Cassie Lowell who finished second.
Overall, Northwest had six of the top 11 finishers.
For the season, Northwest won three tournaments, finished second in another and fifth at its most challenging one in Minnesota.
Individually, the Bearcats had four first place finishers, 13 in the top five and 29 in the top 10.
Northwest will resume play during the spring as one of the favorites to win the MIAA.