"It wasn't pretty, but we got it done! It always feels good to win a region championship!"
That's how Paula Wiedemann, head coach of the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly Volleyball team, summed up her team's hard-fought, five-set win over Jefferson College Saturday in the NJCAA Region 16 Volleyball Championship at the West Plains Civic Center.
The final score was 15-25, 25-21, 15-25, 25-23, 15-8. The win gave the Grizzlies (16-18), who are ranked 18th in this week's poll, their 16th Region 16 Championship.
"We have worked hard to create a better team dynamic to become a better team, and we had to be in order to win this game," Wiedemann said. "Jefferson is a very good team, and they have been better each time we've played them, so we knew we would have to outlast them. Once we had the intensity, we had momentum, and we didn't let up.
"I'm really proud of this group. They've had to fight through a lot of things this season, and they've come a long way," the coach added. "We ask a lot of our players with the tough schedule they have to face. It is hard, and if they can learn how to handle it, they put themselves in a better position to win big games at the end of the season. Winning a region championship against a good team is something we can be proud of."
Fighting for the win
Fight became a key element to the Grizzlies' game Saturday. After falling behind in the first and third sets, the Grizzlies had to dig down deep and battle back to take the second and fourth sets to force a fifth and deciding set.
Once in that last frame, though, the Grizzlies showed what they were capable of doing. They took control early, smashing home three quick points. Then, using an intensity that had been lacking at times during the season, the Grizzlies held off a brief Viking run to smash home the final few points of the game.
"Once we got through that fourth set, we weren't going to let it go," Wiedemann said. "Our intensity was on point. Once we built a lead in the fifth set, you could feel the energy in our players. They were absolutely pounding the ball on offense.
"The intensity we showed in the fourth and fifth sets is a narrative we need to continue building on this week because it makes a difference in how you start a game and definitely how you can finish," the coach added.
Wiedemann said a lack of intensity cost the Grizzlies the first and third sets. But unlike earlier this season, the Grizzlies didn't become frustrated.
"That's what we've been working on," she said. "Our team dynamic is incredibly important. It has nothing to do with skill. When we are doing what we need to do for each other, the way we play has a totally different feel. Creating that feel has to happen for us to be really good, and our players control every bit of that. It isn't something we can take for granted. We have to make it happen. Once it starts, it takes on a life of its own. That's when you give yourself a chance in these types of games."
Leadership is key to building that intensity, Wiedemann said. "There has to be leadership in building that intensity. Once it's there, it's contagious. That's when the game becomes fun, regardless of what the other team is doing. Our ability to put it together every day in practice will determine whether or not we can bring it every game," she explained.
Total team win
The win itself was a total team win, the coach stressed. "Everyone contributed in this win. Offensively, we had big kills from Kelly (Wiedemann), Maju (Loureiro) and Milly (Cristiny). Our middles made things happen with timely kills and by taking care of the ball. Julia (Dunning) continues to keep everyone in the offense, which has to happen for our offense to be effective.
"Defensively, Nayla (Watkins) and Najla (Bray) earned a lot of points blocking and set up well for our defense to do good things. We made good adjustments behind the block and didn't have a lot of miscues that led to easy points for Jefferson. We only had three missed serves and did a better job keeping their middles out of their offense," Coach Wiedemann said.
Statistical leaders include outside attackers Wiedemann and Loureiro with 15 kills each, followed closely by outside/middle attacker Cristiny with 12. Setter Dunning dished out 45 assists. Middle blocker Bray led the team at the net defensively with 6.5 blocks, including five solo blocks. Fellow middle blocker Watkins had 4.5 blocks and Cristiny added four of her own. Wiedemann led the team in digs with 23, followed by Moore with 22. Wiedemann and Moore were identical in passing rating with 2.32 each. Cristiny led the team in service aces with two and points earned with 18.
Coach Wiedemann said credit needs to be given to the Vikings, as well. "Jefferson has improved through the course of the year, and as a coach I respect the heck out of that. Those kids responded and they brought it. They played a very tough game. We knew they would, and that's what you have to be ready for," she said.
"The way they make you play, you have to stay in the game by taking care of the ball. If you get impatient and start forcing things, they can run away with it," she added.
Following the game, selections to the All-Region 16 team were announced. First team honorees included Malena Medus, Andressa Oliveira, Magdalena Bostal and Kwanisha Quarles, all of Jefferson College; Alyana Rooks, Baylie Petry and Emily Greif, all of Mineral Area College (MAC); and Kelly Wiedemann, Maju Loureiro and Camilly Cristiny, all of Missouri State-West Plains.
District play Saturday
As a result of Saturday's win, the Grizzlies will compete in NJCAA Midwest B District play Saturday, Nov. 9, at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois. They will face Region 24 opponent Kaskaskia College from Centraila, Illinois, at 11 a.m. in the first semifinal game of the day.
The other semifinal will pit Region 24 opponent and host Lake Land against Region 11 opponent Indian Hills Community College of Ottumwa, Iowa. Indian Hills is ranked sixth in this week's poll.
The semifinal winners will play at 5 p.m. for the district championship and an automatic berth to the NJCAA Division I Women's National Volleyball Championships Nov. 21-23 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
For more information about the Grizzly Volleyball team, including the full schedule, visit its website at https://www.msuwpgrizzlies.com/sports/wvball/index.