STORY BY ADAM ROGAN
In what is assuredly one of the toughest weekends the Bulldogs could face in terms of quality of opponent, Drake couldn’t manage to win a single set against either the Missouri State Bears or the Wichita State Shockers at home.
Missouri State came into the Knapp Center on “Dig Pink” breast cancer awareness night with the Bulldogs sporting pink uniforms and the court lines colored to match.
Missouri State sat in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked 22nd in the nation with an overall record of 12-5 entering the match.
The Bears were dominant all-around. They displayed strong hitting from the match’s outset, matched by similarly strong blocking. MSU’s hit percentage was more than .150 better than Drake’s throughout the match. The Bears also recorded six blocks in the match, one more than the Bulldogs.
Drake’s serve-receive was strong in game one, but they weren’t always able to give their hitters chances above the net. This resulted in a handful of free-balls being played into the Bears’ court, allowing All-American sophomore hitter Lily Johnson to pick up seven kills in the set.
Still, Drake persisted. Strong hitting on Missouri State’s side led to tough defense from the Bulldogs. Down 14-21, Drake began to show signs of coming back.
A kill from senior Katie Allen started the Bulldogs’ run and Drake crawled back to within five. This forced Missouri State to call a timeout, something that head coach Darrin MacLeod considered a success.
The crowd got more and more rowdy in support of the Bulldogs as the first game grew increasingly heated and competitive — a theme that would continue throughout the match.
Drake kept firing coming out of the timeout and pulled to within three. They finished the set on a 6-2 run, but were in too deep of a hole to escape from. Missouri State won the set 25-21.
“If we each gave one percent more we totally could’ve pulled that out,” Allen said. “If each of us just did our job just a little bit better.”
It looked as though the Bears might walk away with an easy win in set two. They got out to an early 10-4 lead, but that’s when Drake turned it around.
The Bulldogs pulled the match to within three on a 4-1 run. Soon they were down two: 11-13. Then the score was tied 17-17.
Four of their last 13 points were a result of blocks, Katie Dulek having a hand in each of them.
Going back and forth over the next four points, the score was tied again at 19. A serve from Katie Dulek led to a kill from Grace Schofield to give the Bulldogs the lead, their first of the set and second of the match.
Back-to-back attack errors by Schofield, one of which was forced by Missouri State’s only block of the set, returned the lead to MSU.
Down 22-24, Drake was in need of a sideout and a point on their serve to stay alive in game two.
They got the sideout on sophomore Kyla Inderski’s fifth kill of the set, but that would be the last point for the Bulldogs. A questionable net call on redshirt sophomore Taylor Zant ended the set.
Even if the game ended in a loss, the competitiveness of the match proved that the Bulldogs are a much stronger team than they have been in the recent past in all aspects of the game. The last time Drake defeated Missouri State was in 2010.
“I think serve-receive was really, really good in the first two sets,” setter Chandelle Davidson said. “To the hitters’ credit, I think they did a really nice job putting the ball away.”
Drake’s back was now against the wall and in need of three straight set wins to take the upset.
The last three kills of the set before Zant’s error came from Johnson. She would finish the match with the 22 kills on 52 attempts, game-highs in both categories.
Last year, as a freshman, Johnson was named as an All-American. This season she leads the MVC in kills and is seventh in aces.
Johnson wasn’t the only Bear who wore the Bulldogs down. MSU’s libero, freshman Emily Butters, had a game-high 18 digs, including several key point-saving dive that she made look easy.
The heartbreaking loss in game two seemed to have killed the Bulldogs’ spirit in game three. That, and Missouri State freshman MacKenzie Irwin’s serving.
McKenzie served an impressive 13 times in game three on two runs. Three of those serves were aces.
“That was very detrimental to us,” Davidson said. “What we did well in the first two sets really fell apart in the last set.”
McBroom tried switching up lineups in game three, putting in Ashley Dina and Odessa Cody, two players who haven’t seen much action this year, but it didn’t appear to have much of a positive impact in the end.
“We had the opportunities there, (but) we just couldn’t put the ball away,” Allen said.
The Bulldogs were unable to get anything going and were blown out 25-12.
“We were slow to get started early on,” McBroom said. “We were playing a little bit reactive, waiting to see what Missouri State is going to do … instead of just playing our game.”
The match may have ended in a loss, but it showed that the Bulldogs could play with the MVC powerhouse.
“That’s huge for us… in the big picture (to see) where our program has been and now to be able to go into a match against one of the top teams in the conference and not get slapped around and hold our own and be in the game,” McBroom said.
But even if the Bulldogs had proven their ability to stay competitive with the MVC’s best teams, beating them seemed to be another question entirely.
“Wichita is a great team,” Davidson said after the Missouri State match. “I think if we have the same numbers hitting-wise against Wichita then we’ll be successful.”
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs did not hit well against the Shockers the following night, the second best team in the MVC.
In set one the Bulldogs had a hit percentage of zero and finished the match with a cumulative .061. Wichita State, playing in much better form, hit over .500 in sets one and three and finished the match with a hit percentage of .393.
Drake took the lead in game one came after the first point, but would relinquish it soon after.
Up 5-4, Drake allowed a 7-1 run to give Wichita State the advantage. It only got worse from there.
The Shockers ended the game on an impressive 13-5 run, capped by three consecutive kills from sophomore Mikaela Raudsepp.
Raudsepp tied for the game-high with 10 kills. Shimen Fayad also recorded 10 kills on 20 attempts with just three errors for the Shocker.
Wichita State setter Emily Hiebert also had her way with the Bulldogs, going five-for-five on attack attempts while also picking up a pair of aces and a block assist in the match.
Despite another dismal hitting performance in game two – Drake’s hit percentage of .105 was less than half of Wichita State’s – the Bulldogs kept the score close.
Neither team ever led by more than two points in the set and the lead changed hands a total of seven times.
Drake was ahead 21-20 late and it looked as though they might manage to come away with a win, but the Shockers went on a 4-2 run to reclaim the lead. A heartbreaking setting error from Drake libero Michelle Thommi gave Wichita State the set point and a 2-0 match lead.
The third set was even worse than the first for the Bulldogs.
After taking the first point, Drake never led or even tied the score and Wichita State walked away with the victory.
The loss dropped Drake to 12-12 on the season, the first time the team has been at .500 all year. Placing in the top six teams in the conference and clinching a conference playoff seed seems pretty unlikely as well. Drake now sits in the bottom half in the MVC with a conference record of 3-4.
But the season is still far from over. The Bulldogs will get a chance at revenge over the Bears and the Shockers on their own courts in the first weekend of November. If the Bulldogs can stay in the hunt that late into the season, how those two matches play out could make or break their playoff hopes.
Despite the losses, the Bulldogs are still confident that they will be a contender in the MVC this season.
“We’re focused now and we know what it takes to play with the big dogs,” Allen said.
Before that, Drake has four road matches over the next two weeks before coming back to the Knapp Center on Halloween weekend.