Drake could have folded after dropping the opening two sets against a superior Big 12 foe. Instead the Bulldogs clawed back to win the next two sets at Kansas State, but dropped the deciding fifth set as the Wildcats earned the victory (22-25, 28-30, 25-23, 25-19, 15-9) on Monday night in Manhattan, Kan.
“We’ve been starting out pretty slow, but we come back and fight,” junior Whitney Westrum said. “We’re a fighting team. We don’t worry if we get down one or two (sets).”
Junior outside hitter Bentley Mancini had a career-high 18 kills and recorded a .348 attacking percentage. Westrum registered a double-double, adding 14 kills and a career-high 23 digs.
Down 0-2, Mancini led the Bulldogs back into the match. She had six kills in the third set while the rest of the Drake offense had just five. Mancini and Westrum teamed up for four kills apiece in set four to force a fifth set.
“Errors drive our sport,” head coach Tony Sunga said. “Whoever wins is usually who could sustain in system play the longest. There were three points we gave them in the middle of the last set. We couldn’t regain form, and from that point on all (Kansas State) needed to do was trade points.”
After losing six seniors and hiring a first time head coach, the Bulldogs were expected to go through periods of rebuilding this season. Although a 3-8 record may not have been what Sunga envisioned at this point in the season, he has seen some positive signs.
“Expectations are different,” Sunga said. “We’ve all come a long ways together. Things are going well.”
Westrum contributed greatly to the upperclassmen-led team last season and was one of the reasons the Bulldogs made their second consecutive trip to the State Farm MVC Tournament. She has stepped up as one of Drake’s most potent threats this season.
“I definitely feel like I’m playing a bigger role,” Westrum said. “I played all the way around (front row and back row) against K-State. I like the pressure, having a high level of performance each game. There’s no chance to slack off.”
Kansas State was the second Big 12 opponent of the week for Drake. The Bulldogs lost to Missouri in four sets last Friday at the Pioneer Classic in Denver, Colo.
“I didn’t know what to expect (on Monday),” Sunga said. “It was our fifth match in four days. But we came out fighting.”
After serving as an assistant coach at Drake from 2005-07, Sunga was hired by Wyoming for the same position, which he held for the last three years. When the head coaching job opened at Drake, he jumped on the opportunity.
“It’s very good to be back at Drake,” he said. “I’m working where I love to be working. It’s a dream job for me.”
The Bulldogs travel to Omaha, Neb., this weekend to compete in the Creighton Classic. Drake takes on the host Bluejays on Friday at 7 p.m., which will also be the Bulldogs’ conference opener.
Westrum said she feels that a difficult non-conference season will benefit the squad moving forward.
“Our record was not as good, but hopefully it will prepare us for the conference season,” she said.
Drake will also face Alabama-Birmingham and McNeese State this weekend. The team then hits the road again to face Southern Illinois and Evansville before its first home MVC match on Sept. 30 versus Indiana State.
“We’re a very hardworking team,” Sunga said. “It’s a matter of getting enough experience and fighting constantly. It’s about not letting negative outcomes snowball into several negative outcomes.”