Aug. 24, 2011
A taste of the postseason has Bearcats eager for return
By: David Boyce
One moment from last season stands out for Northwest Missouri State senior setter Laira Akin and it didn't take place on the volleyball court.
The Bearcats gathered in the conference room to learn their fate of becoming the first volleyball team in school history to advance to regional playoffs.
"That was really important for us," Akin said. "We were there as a team and it was a big celebration. It showed all our hard work paid off."
Despite falling to Washburn 26-24, 25-23, 25-20 in the first round of the South Central Region, the Bearcats proved they could play with one of the elite teams in Division II in postseason play.
"It was really important to us because it showed us we did deserve to be there," Akin said. "We weren't just a fluke team that made it by chance. We showed people we deserved to be there and we are ready to go again. I think this team is going to be the kind of team that goes every year."
And that's the challenge presented to the 2011 Bearcats.
Akin and Alex Hanna are the only two seniors on a squad that brings in seven freshmen.
Northwest, which finished 15-15 overall and 11-9 in the MIAA last season, is out to prove it is not a one-year wonder. The Bearcats still have much to prove.
In the preseason poll, Northwest was picked sixth even behind Pittsburg State, a team the Bearcats swept last season. The slight bothered Akin just a little.
"Preseason polls are preseason polls and they rarely turn out exactly the way they are written," said Jessica Rinehart, who enters her second season as Northwest head coach.
"Sixth is a good spot. It gives us room to move up and exceed expectations and it does not put a ton of pressure on our backs."
The Bearcats, though, are striving to become a volleyball program that is consistently among the conference top teams.
For that to happen good leadership is needed and new blood must be injected into the program each season.
Rinehart will be counting on Akin and Hanna to provide the leadership and stellar play on the court. A year ago, Hanna led the Northwest in kills with 352 and Akin ranked first in assists with 1,097
"We are expecting them to do great things their senior season," Rinehart said. "They both understand their responsibilities and they are excited about it. They are ready to propel the program to heights it has never seen. We will be looking to them to give us leadership and good play on the court."
Akin and Hanna embrace their new roles as team leaders.
"I think it is really important for us that we have that experience to draw on and we know where this team can go," Akin said. "We've seen a couple of days of the freshmen and we can see where they are going to help us go."
The Bearcats want to go to the top. Success taste a lot better and leaves loads of wonderful memories.
Northwest had plenty last season. The Bearcats won a thrilling five-set match at home against No. 2 ranked Washburn on "Pink Out" night for breast cancer awareness.
The Bearcats also won an exciting five-set match over Nebraska-Omaha at Red Oak High School in Red Oak, Iowa, which was a return home for Rinehart and Hanna.
Those experiences, Hanna said, are good to draw on.
"I think it is good to have it in our memory so we know we can be successful like we were," she said. "But it is definitely a new year with new faces. We have to go out and prove ourselves again."
Only a few days into practice, Akin likes what she sees from the freshmen.
"We are looking for them to come in with the same drive and determination that they had in their high school and club programs," Akin said. "We don't want them to buy into the fact they are freshmen and can't do anything.
"We want them to fight for that starting spot. And what I've seen out of them, I think there will be a lot of battles for starting spots coming from freshmen."
Rinehart likes this time of the season. School has yet to start. There are few distractions. The players come in fresh and eager to play.
"We got a great energy around here," Rinehart said. "We are bringing in seven new people which add excitement. The returners worked extremely hard in the offseason so they are excited for their turn to get on the court this fall. With this collective group, there is a great energy in our gym right now.
"It was clear from the first practice that this team is here to do something this year and not here just to go through the motion. You wish you could put the first day of practice in a bottle and keep it there. It is always great to have their full attention, mind, body and spirit. It is volleyball at its best. The whole preseason is fun with limited distractions."
And then the games begin. Northwest first matches are Sept. 2 at the Nebraska-Omaha Showcase. The Bearcats will face Minnesota State Moorehead and Northern State (S.D.) on the first day of the two-day event.
The first MIAA match is Sept. 20 at home against Washburn. It's the perfect team for the Bearcats to play to see where they stand in 2011 against a program that needed to make regional a few times before they were viewed as an elite team.
"The first taste of postseason makes you want to keep going harder, push yourself to make it again," Hanna said.
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