The Blue Mountain volleyball team started its season trying to step out of a large shadow cast by three consecutive NWAC championships.
“I think it definitely shook the nerves,” said sophomore setter Maci Beierle. “Oh my gosh, we have to live up this expectation, and last year they were 50-4. And that’s all you could think about whether the banners were there or not.”
Looking to step out into their own, the T-Wolves promptly did something none of the previous championship teams had and lost their first three matches of the season.
They would go on to drop six more matches, and head coach Dave Baty continued to express skepticism over his young roster’s grasp of his system even during their season-long 21 match winning streak.
“We just needed to let it go,” Beierle said.
Going into Thursday’s NWAC Championships, the East Region champion T-Wolves (37-9) seem to have done just that.
“I think our match-ups toward the end of the season have been pretty diverse, so I think going into NWACs they are well prepared,” said coach Jessica Humphreys. “They’re ready, they’re in a good place as a group mentally and fundamentally to go up and do what they set out to do. And I think they know it’s in their hands. They’re excited, nervous, and all the right normal emotions.”
The T-Wolves are going into the tournament off one of the most unique season finales a team could experience.
Humphreys, who is eight and a half months pregnant with her first child, is not to travel by doctor’s orders. Her absence for the Nov. 11 match at Big Bend was to be expected.
But then things went a little haywire when Baty had to miss the match to support his wife during her hip surgery.
Former assistant Scott Carswell stepped in to serve as coach in the match — “If not, I don’t know what happens,” Baty said — and the T-Wolves won 3-0. In doing they so finished off a 14-0 league record, something last season’s team left unchecked on the list of season goals.
“I think it brought out a lot of leadership in everybody. A lot of girls stepped up that night,” said sophomore Klaree Hobart. “It was a little weird but we worked through it pretty well.”
“It felt like we can handle more than we thought,” said freshman Kristin Williams. “It was definitely weird not having Dave there or Jess there, but we handled it and we overcame it. I thought that would help us going into the tournament.”
Carswell will continue to assist Baty throughout the NWAC Tournamnent, which begins with T-Wolves facing SW Oregon (16-20) at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center at 9 a.m. All games will be broadcast via live stream on the YouTube channel NWAC Sports Channel 1.
Here are some other things to consider as the T-Wolves prepare to take on the Lakers:
TOURNAMENT DEBUTS: Eight T-Wolves freshmen will be getting their first taste of the NWAC Championship experience.
“I think a lot of the freshmen are in for a big surprise on Thursday, but they’ll get it figured out really quick,” said Hobart, who along with Beierle are the only two returning starters from last season’s championship team. “I walked in there and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is a weird atmosphere.’ I think that first game they’re going to have a little jitters, a couple butterflies, but they’ll work it out the first couple points.”
“I’m definitely excited, but nervous too,” said Williams, a Pendleton native. “I think it’ll be really cool trying to go down there and fulfill a legacy.”
Freshman Miah Perez said she wasn’t sure how to feel.
“I really don’t know what to expect. I’m just planning on playing good volleyball the next few days, try to touch up what we can in practice and then just go play.”
BRACKETOLOGY: The T-Wolves like their first round match-up in a SW Oregon team whose best asset is its No. 5 NWAC ranking in digs per game (16.69), but feel like they’ve definitely got the tougher bracket with Bellevue and Chemeketa looking like possible future round match-ups.
“There’s a lot of anticipation and expectations as to the end, but I think the first two or three rounds are going to be better than the end, especially considering our bracket,” Hobart said. “I don’t think there’s any team that we cannot beat. I don’t think there’s any team that necessarily cannot beat us. I think it’s going to be a good tournament and we’re going to have to play our asses off.”
Chemeketa has beaten the T-Wolves in all three of their meeting this season with the Storm holding a 9-1 edge in sets won.
“I’m not going to take anything from them, they’re studs,” Beierle said, before adding, “We can hang with them. It’s hard to beat a good team three times in a row and I think this would be our fourth time playing them.
“It’s basically the team that plays the best for the next four days and any team could win it.”
T-WOLVES NOT TOP DOG: When the T-Wolves hoisted the NWAC trophy last season it was with the idea that a majority of the team’s extremely talented freshman class would return for another season.
That ended up not being the case, and despite getting middle blocker Keri Schwarz and setter Kylie Collins back from injuries this season the T-Wolves have struggled to replace the production of key net players like Amorelle Applin, Madi Harris, Kylee Giles and Alyssa Carnes.
“We’re certainly not the team to beat this year, and everybody kind of knows that,” Baty said. “But at the same time it’s been fun.
“I think it’d be one thing if we had some beautiful sterling record to protect, but my lord, we’ve lost nine games this year. There’s nothing to protect.”
Baty said he’s not sure what to expect out this season’s NWAC Tournament.
“If they play like they’ve been practicing the last three or four days, we’re going to be OK. If they don’t, then we’re going to be another one of those teams hoping somebody will give us points when we need to be in the mindset of earning the points.
“This is one of those situations that you hope when the time comes and they need to do their best they can find a way.
For the last two years for sure it was our tournament to lose, now it’s let’s go see what can happen. It’s a little bit different mindset.”
CONFIDENCE IS KEY: One thing the T-Wolves will not be able to do is get down on themselves at any point in the tournament.
The T-Wolves had a habit of displaying their best and worst in the same match at points this season, and that’s all about their mental approach.
“I think if they stay aggressive, despite whatever happened the last point, that will be the key to making it to the championship match,” said Humphreys.
The good news is recent results and a strong week of practice have the team in the right state of mind.
“We feel like we are still improving, instead of coasting right now, which is something teams don’t normally do toward the end of the season so I’m pretty excited about that,” Williams said. “I think we just need to be confident in ourselves, and not worry about anybody else and just play hard.”
Contact Matt Entrup at firstname.lastname@example.org or (541) 966-0838.