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Notebook: Pioneers confident entering tourney

Profile image for By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle

Confidence is overflowing at TWU as it looks forward to today’s opening-round match at the Lone Star Conference tournament.

That’s the kind of rush a team gets from knocking off the No. 9 team in the nation in its regular-season finale and breaking the school record for conference victories in a season.

“Regardless of how the tournament ends up,” sophomore setter Kayla Rivero said, “that’s going to be a game the seniors will talk about for the rest of their lives.”

On Saturday, the Pioneers showed that they’re ready for the three-day tournament in San Angelo. By defeating tourney host and top-seeded Angelo State in four sets, TWU received a huge shot of momentum heading into the tournament.

“We just relaxed and played,” head coach Shelly Barberee said of last weekend’s upset of the Rambelles. “That was probably the most relaxed I’ve seen them play all year and probably the best I’ve seen them play all year.

“I don’t know if that was our peaking moment,” she said, “but hopefully we’ll continue to peak this weekend. I do know that it was a great win to build confidence.”

TWU (22-7, 15-5 Lone Star) enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed and faces No. 5 Texas A&M-Commerce (20-10, 11-9) at 5 p.m. today in one of four first-round matches. Two semifinal matches are scheduled for Friday, followed by the final on Saturday.

Adding to the Pioneers’ confidence is the fact that they defeated the Lions both times the teams met during the regular season. TWU posted outstanding hitting percentages to sweep Commerce in both meetings.

But facing a team for the third time in a season can be a tricky task. A year ago, TWU defeated Tarleton State twice during the regular season and lost to the TexAnns in the first round of the tournament.

“It’s tough to beat a team three times,” blocker Chloe’ Tate said. “But we’ve scouted them, we’ve done our homework and we know [Commerce] backwards and forwards, so I think we’ll be prepared.”

Barberee and her staff have tried to make sure the players approach each opponent with the same level of intensity and preparation, disregarding records, standings and rankings.

“All year long we’ve talked about not taking anybody lightly,” Barberee said. “Whoever it is we’re playing — whether it’s the first-place team or somebody we’ve beaten before — we’ve got to play them the same.

“[Commerce has] one of the best hitters in the conference, but so do we,” she said. “They’ll try to shut our hitter down just like we’re going to try to shut their hitter down. We’ve got to go out like they’re the No. 3 team in the nation.”

The Lions are anchored by senior blocker Rachael Robertson, who is No. 1 in the LSC in hitting percentage (.383) and second in kills (3.84 per set). But TWU counters with senior hitter Viktorija Jablonska, who ranks third in kills with 3.70.

TWU also has shown it has the defense to counter the Lions’ attack, as Tate, a Ryan graduate, is third in the conference in blocks with an average of 1.09 per set and has 91 on the season. Libero Morgan Wilson and hitter Courtnee Davis are among the top 15 in the league in digs.

A&M-Commerce also boasts one of the Lone Star’s top servers and setters. Jordan Neal is No. 2 in aces per set (0.38) and total aces (39). She is one of just four players in the conference averaging more than 10 assists per set.

“We’re just going to stick to our guns,” Tate said. “We have a certain way we play. We play with high intensity and we’re an attacking team. So we’ll stick to our game plan and try to take it to them.”

Rivero is taking a similar approach.

“We have to prepare like we’ve never played them before,” she said. “We’ll scout them just the same and really focus on beating them.”

If the Pioneers win, they could face Angelo State in the semifinals. The Rambelles face eighth-seeded Incarnate Word in the opening round tonight.

A possible at-large invitation to the NCAA Division II tournament could be waiting for the Pioneers if they upend the Rambelles for the second time in a week.

“If we could beat them again, I think our chances will be very high,” Barberee said.

First, though, the Pioneers must take care of A&M-Commerce today.

“We’ve just got to play relaxed,” Barberee said. “Now we know we can play with anybody. I think the key is staying relaxed to keep our confidence going.”

Tournament notes

The single-elimination tournament will be held at the Junell Center. ... The tournament champion earns the league’s automatic berth in the Division II tournament. ... All tournament matches will be streamed live for free at ... The other first-round matches are No. 3 Tarleton State vs. No. 6 Texas A&M-Kingsville at noon and No. 2 West Texas A&M vs. No. 7 Abilene Christian at 2:30 p.m.



TWU’s home opener slated for Saturday

After opening the season Tuesday with a last-second victory over Ouachita Baptist, TWU makes its home debut this weekend with a pair of games in the four-team Marriott Champions Circle Pioneer Premiere.

On Saturday, the Pioneers will play host to Texas A&M-International at 2:30 p.m. On Sunday, TWU will face Central Oklahoma at 4 p.m. Angelo State will take on the UCO Bronchos at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and will play A&M-International at 2 p.m. Sunday.

TWU nipped host Ouachita Baptist 60-59 on Tuesday when Taylor Swift connected on a buzzer-beating jumper.