Volleyball prepares to ‘handle pressure’ in MIAA

With only one more non-conference game left on the schedule for nearly a month, the Missouri Southern volleyball team is playing with a sense of urgency before beginning play in the MIAA next week.

“As a team, we can’t relax with any opponent,” said Head Coach Chris Willis. “The competition is too good to have an off night and expect to win. We have to fight like it’s your last match every night.

” All we can ask for is our team’s best effort every time they step on the floor.”

The Lions, who are off to a 3-5 start, head to Missouri S&T at 2 p.m. Saturday before opening conference play at 7 p.m., Sept. 17 at Nebraska-Omaha.

Since being named the fifth head volleyball coach in Missouri Southern history, Willis has built a perennial contender in the MIAA.

The 2007 season, though, was a struggle for the Lions, finishing two games under .500 (15-17 overall) to go along with a 2-11 mark in MIAA play.

“We were disappointed with our performance within the MIAA,” said Willis, now in his fifth season. “Beyond the difficulty of the conference schedule, I believe many of our younger players weren’t prepared for the intensity of the competition. Every MIAA team knows how important each victory is, and we need to be better prepared to handle that pressure.”

Once last season was over, Willis quickly turned his attention toward recruiting and preparing for this year.

“Our recruiting for this season was almost finished before last season was complete, so we had to predict our needs a year in advance,” Willis said.

” Our two junior college transfers – Stefanie Williams and Kara Robeson – were brought in to give us immediate contributions on the floor at the outside hitter and middle blocker position, respectively.”

“We also knew we had to get another setter to train and eventually take Sarah Jole’s place when she graduated. Elin Skei has filled that role and exceeded our expectations so far.

Willis said Maria Weller and Amber Heiskell were recruited to give the Lions depth as outside hitters and they are progressing even faster than expected.

“We are thrilled with the new players on the team,” he said.

The Lions lost four seniors after last season. All four saw significant playing time throughout the year.

“You can’t replace players like pieces in a puzzle,” Willis said. “Each new team is very different than the previous. The seniors, we had last year, established a legacy with traditions that will have an impact for years to come in ways they may never realize.”

Now, this year’s Lions must find their own identity.

“This year’s squad will move forward and find it’s own leader and hopefully set higher standards,” Willis said.

Seniors Joles, Ashley Hill, Cherie Baugh and Katie Gage return this year to guide the Lions.

“Overall, I feel very good about the balance we have in each class (three juniors, five sophomores, and three freshmen),” Willis said. “If you look at who is contributing so far this year, its mostly seniors, juniors and sophomores. That’s a good sign that we are recruiting and training our kids well.”

With the MIAA conference fast approaching, Willis said he wants the Lions to simplify things this year.

“We’re concerned with one point at a time,” he said. “In fact, we talk a lot about focusing on one contact at a time. If we get ahead of ourselves, we’ll lose focus.”

Everything aside, the Lions still want to qualify for the NCAA National Tournament.

“We have the strength of schedule,” Willis said.

“And I think we have the talent.”