PILOT ROCK — After Heppner upset top-ranked Culver on Tuesday night to earn a tie for first place atop the Columbia Basin Conference standings, the Mustangs were feeling confident in themselves.
Perhaps, too confident.
On Thursday night, Heppner traveled north to take on Pilot Rock and looked all out of sorts on both offense and defense in the first set as the Rockets handed them a 25-8 loss. However after that set, the Mustangs settled down, got back to playing their style and breezed through the next three sets 25-21, 25-14, 25-15 to defeat Pilot Rock 3-1.
“They had a tough match with Culver ... and we talked this week is you can relish in those moments but you have to move forward. And I think the first set was a reality of ‘Oh I really have to move forward,’” Heppner coach Mindy Wilson said. “It was good for them, a humbling experience that made them work in the last three games. The girls knew they were going to have to dig deep and Pilot Rock was going to push them to do the little things and they did.”
Heppner (15-5 overall, 5-1 CBC) took the first point of the match on a block by Morgan Correa and trailed 3-2 early. Pilot Rock (13-8, 2-4) overwhelmed the Mustangs in the rest of the set, as Grace Austin smacked three kills and served two aces and Abby Rigby smacked two kills with three aces as the Rockets went on a 17-2 run quickly after.
However, Heppner was able to regroup in the huddle after the set was over with the help of a short speech by Wilson and came out for the second set looking like a different team.
“Coach totally picked us up,” Heppner senior Sophie Grant said. “She told us she believed in us and that we needed to believe in ourselves and it really helped boost our spirits. We rallied back, picked ourselves up out of the hole and got better.”
Heppner again won the first point of the set, but this time kept pushing forward. Standing at a 6-6 tie, a block-kill by Jenna McCullough and two straight aces by Grant gave the Mustangs a 10-6 lead. But every lead the Mustangs would get, the Rockets would chip away. Heppner led 20-15 with momentum heading toward their first set win, but a kill by Rhyanne Oates helped Pilot Rock get within 20-18. However, the Mustangs were able to finish off the set.
By the time the third and fourth sets rolled around, Heppner was holding all the momentum and had Pilot Rock scrambling on both sides. Heppner wasn’t beating them down with thundering kill after thundering kill, but instead were relying on great defense with big digs and quick hits to force mistakes by the Rockets.
“We told them you have to get low and move quick,” Wilson said. “(Pilot Rock) is going to push you short and push you long and to do that you have to get low and play hard, with lost of communication with each other, too. Because if you stop doing those three things, it’ll take you all the way out of the game.”
Heppner remains tied with Culver for first place in the CBC and has already surpassed last season’s win total (13). It has been a remarkable turnaround for a team largely comprised of the same players from the 2016 team that finished fourth in the CBC. However, Grant says that she believes a few tweaks with Wilson, in her first year as head coach, has made a big difference.
“We’ve completely changed our practices and I feel we’re working harder every day,” she said. “We have a different mindset and just all around we’re a lot better team. It’s awesome to come out every day, I love it.”
Wilson says that the main reason for the improvement is simply a better team mindset.
“I think a lot of it is a little bit of heart and a little bit of passion,” she said. “They’re really jelling well as a team and it makes a big difference. We don’t have any team issues. I have a bench that supports them 100 percent and they’re all in it together and I think that makes a big difference.”
Heppner will take on St. Paul and Kennedy at Sherman County High School on Saturday. Pilot Rock will host Culver on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.