Nov. 17, 2010
Northwest Seniors Help Make History
By David Boyce
Two weeks ago at the weekly media luncheon, first-year volleyball coach Jessica Rinehart had excitement in her voice when she talked about Northwest Missouri State's 3-2 victory over Nebraska-Omaha at Red Oak High School.
Rinehart had very little to say about the match that followed. The match was history and there was really no need to dwell on the 25-17, 25-10, 25-8 loss at Central Missouri.
Among the people in the audience were her six seniors.
Rinehart's tone went quickly back to upbeat when she started talking about the upcoming match against Missouri Western.
Like they had all season, the Bearcats quickly bounced back from a one-sided loss to beat Missouri Western 26-24, 25-23, 27-25.
There are many reasons why Northwest's volleyball program is making its first-ever trip to the South Central Regional. The Bearcats have an unusually large senior class. They have talent. They play well together.
But perhaps the biggest reason Northwest, 15-14, will continue its season at 2:30 p.m. Thursday against Washburn (30-2), at Central Missouri, is the atmosphere Rinehart put in place.
"It was just such a positive environment," senior Paige Spangenberg said. "We knew we weren't always going to play perfect, but we were able to bounce back after a few tough losses. Having that confidence was huge for us this year.
"It's awesome. It means a lot to make regionals. You put in a lot of hard work and time over the years and something as cool and exciting as this is a good way to go out."
The Bearcats are looking to bounce back once again. After beating Missouri Western, they dropped their final two matches, losing at home to Truman and at Missouri Southern.
The loss on Saturday to Missouri Southern caused some anxious moments all day Sunday. The Bearcats knew they were on the bubble for the eight-team regional.
"The team was constantly talking about it," senior Amber Ryan said. "Do you think we are in if this happens? We were trying to think of every scenario."
A few minutes after 9 p.m., the Bearcats found out that they made it as the No. 7 seed and were going to play second-seeded Washburn.
"It put the icing on the cake," Ryan said. "I don't think I could ask for anything more in my senior year. It was pretty exciting in the room. We were all in a big circle, holding hands. I can't explain the feeling."
The Bearcats have already used their bounce-back attitude against Washburn. In the MIAA opener, Northwest lost 25-12, 25-17, 25-13 at Washburn on Sept. 14. On Oct. 19 in Maryville, Northwest avenged that loss with a thrilling 25-23, 21-25, 25-20, 17-25, 22-20 victory.
"Yes, we like the match-up," senior Sara Falcone said. "We are the underdogs. We don't have the pressure on us. We can go and do what we do and hopefully we will come out on top."
The Bearcats really don't care who they play. They want to be as successful as they can be.
"Everyone is 0-0 in the postseason and it comes down to who is going to perform during the next three days of volleyball," Rinehart said. "I would think it would give my team confidence knowing we beat Washburn before and we can compete with them. That's a positive. But I feel it doesn't matter who is in front of you. You have to play your best when it is tournament time."
Whatever happens during the NCAA tournament, a foundation has been built.
"Hopefully, it can continue on to next year and we can prove it is not a fluke," sophomore Laira Akin said. "This is the new Northwest volleyball team."
The players have proven that teamwork and chemistry on and off the court works.
In matches the Bearcats didn't play as well as they liked, the players didn't bicker. They stayed together. It's a tribute to a strong senior class, Akin said.
"We realized with such a big senior class that this was our time and the coaching staff made it clear to us that we had all the tools we needed," Akin said. "We knew if we could mentally put it together, our skills would take us where we wanted.
"I'm really happy for them. I love them. It has been an honor to play with them the last two years. I wish they could stay longer so we could put together another great season like this, but I'm excited with the legacy they leave us with."
It's a season that the seniors at Northwest will always remember.
"I feel like this group is the closest I've been a part of in my four years," Ryan said. "Everybody gets along really well. We are playing together.
"A new coaching staff can be negative for a team, but it only helped us."
From the very beginning, Rinehart knew she had a good group of seniors to work with in her first season.
"They are good people, great teammates and give great leadership," she said. "They obviously have the skill to compete at this level.
"They came in with an open attitude towards me and I came in with an open attitude towards them. With that we were able to mesh and create the best out of a situation."
The results are historic. Every player can say they were on the first Northwest volleyball team that played in the NCAA tournament.
"It is a great opportunity for our team. It is great to represent the University in a national event," Rinehart said. "All in all, we are glad we were given the opportunity."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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