Sometimes in sports, in order to achieve, a team must truly believe.
The TWU Pioneers already know they will be advancing to the NCAA South Central regional, but this season will go down as one of the most prosperous seasons in program history and that progress hasn’t been for a lack of confidence.
“Last year, I would say that I feel like that the girls didn’t feel like they could do more than they did,” senior middle blocker Marcela Alvez said. “This year, we believe and I feel like the other girls are playing for the seniors. They see how much we want it and how much Coach wants it. That’s what’s pushing us. Last year we had a great group, but I don’t think they believed it. This year, the group believes. We know we can do better than we did last year.”
Alvez and the Pioneers have plenty of stimuli that inject their self-confidence, but for Alvez, who as of this past Sunday is sixth in the nation in blocks, the genesis of their belief begins with the coaching staff and head coach Shelly Barberee.
“[The confidence] has come a lot from coach,” Alvez said. “She’s a great coach. We practice very hard. Coach believes in us. She tells us how she feels about it, and she’s always honest. If she thinks we can’t do something, she’s going to tell us, but if she believes we can, she’s going to tell us. We believe that.”
The Pioneers have already accomplished their goal of advancing to the NCAA regional tournament, but before they can look ahead, they will have to conquer a few demons.
If the Pioneers have designs on earning a Lone Star Conference championship, they will have to tame their game into shape to defeat host and top-seeded West Texas A&M and earn some retribution against their first-round opponent — No. 7 seed Texas-A&M Kingsville (15-18, 6-10 LSC).
TWU (21-9, 11-5) fell to Kingsville at home earlier in the year without their starting setter Kayla Rivero, and it was then that the Pioneers learned a hard but valuable lesson.
“They just came in and took it from us,” TWU assistant coach Jessica Beener said. “That was kind of a defining moment in our season where we realized that we need to beat the teams we need to beat, and we need to beat them pretty handily. We’re looking to take this next game [easily] and save some energy for the next two games.”
Junior libero Morgan Wilson noted how difficult the Kingsville match was without Rivero, so when it comes to leadership, she feels like it’s on a select group of players.
“Kayla is one of the captains, so not having a captain out there will hurt the team,” Wilson said. “I’d say that Chloe’ [Tate], Kayla, Marcela and myself, we are main four that are out on the court the whole time, so if you’re on the court the whole time, you need to be one of the leaders.”
With five seniors on the team searching for a better ending than last season’s loss in the second round of the LSC tournament to the then-No. 11 ranked Angelo State, which the Pioneers will likely meet up with again in the semifinals, motivation isn’t hard to come by.
“It’s a weird feeling, because I really don’t want to leave,” Alvez said. “We are just going to put out all that we have. We have a lot of seniors, so most of us are just working hard to get whatever we can. We are probably the leaders right now. We are a young team, too, so we have to overdo it for the freshmen. So we have to be patient. Chloe is a great leader. She is more patient. I’m more emotional. Mo [Morgan] is very calm and very positive. Kayla is very emotional, too.”
For Beener and the coaching staff, they didn’t exactly have to twist any arms to encourage the players to play with emotion, either.
“It’s really easy when you have five seniors,” Beener said. “They have a lot of intensity and passion for the game. That’s something we didn’t really have to do anything with. They came in with it. They all knew where they wanted to be this year. They wanted to compete for a conference championship and make it to regionals. That’s what they wanted, and they went out there and they did it.”
Not to go unnoticed, the Pioneers, as a team, have quietly crept up amongst the national leaders in blocks. Sixth-ranked West Texas A&M (28-3, 16-0) is tops in the nation with 2.98 blocks per set.
Right behind the Lady Buffs is TWU with 2.75 blocks per set.
As several Pioneers will attest, it is difficult to defeat a team three times. With TWU’s four-set loss to the top-seeded Lady Buffs last Friday starting off on a optimal, opening-set win, the Pioneers’ errors came back to bite them.
If TWU can limit their own mistakes and play their style of game, defeating West Texas A&M in Canyon is just another hurdle the Pioneers feel they can easily take in stride.
“We want to get a ring, and we want to beat WT in the [LSC] finals,” Wilson said. “That’s our goal. Since I’ve been here, we’ve never beat them. That just comes from a fire under us. We know we’re more athletic; we’re better than them and that we can beat them.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.