The Kent State volleyball team began their season with a historic six game win streak.
Halfway through the season the Flashes sat at 8-1 and looked poised to make a run at the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
But KSU would lose eight of its last 12 matches, including two 3-0 losses to Western Michigan University this weekend.
And just like that, the season was over.
“It hurts really bad,” coach Don Gromala said. “Not only did we miss the tournament, but we had been in a position to finish as one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference and compete for a championship. And to lose that hurts really bad.”
Entering the weekend the Flashes needed to win just one of its two matches against second place Western Michigan to clinch a spot in the MAC Tournament. But Western Michigan dominated Kent State on Friday, winning all three sets by at least six points.
Gromola said the team came out strong at first, but “then just gave up a big rally.”
“We couldn’t recover,” he said. “We knew it would be hard to slow them down. We were hoping to do some things better offensively, but when that didn’t happen, it left us reeling.”
On Friday, WMU won the first set 25-19, then jumped to a 22-9 lead in the second. Kent State went on a 13-2 run to pull within two, but WMU would win 25-22. The Broncos would win the third 25-15.
“We had a better response Saturday,” Gromala said. “We fought back like we’ve done all season. But we let it go there at the end. It was a tough way to end out our season.”
The Flashes’ defense would allow WMU to hit at a .357 percentage across the two games. It was the highest percentage KSU had given up in a series all season.
“The faster and harder their offense was running, the harder it was for us to get a block and stop them,” Gromala said. “On top of that our floor defense was out of position a lot against their strong hitters.”
KSU would only hit .198 percentage on Friday and .154 on Saturday for a series hitting percentage of .176. Not one player would get double-digits kills in either game.
“We weren’t being consistent,” Gromala said. “We were relying on our big swings too much. We need to find the right types of swings to use at the right time.”
Gromala said that the team’s 16 service errors over the two games were a big part of the loss.
“There were times the score was close, and we would give up a bunch of points off of our serves,” he said. “It made it all the harder to stop them.”
After losing in the first round of the MAC Tournament in 2019, KSU had to endure an offseason like no other.
COVID-19 pushed the fall season to spring, and practices were often held without the full roster present. The team’s opening series against Eastern Michigan was postponed because of COVID-19 problems at EMU.
“Sitting out for six months and coming back to such a different setup is tough,” Gromala said. “It becomes even harder when the team isn’t fully practicing together that much. Hats off to them for their adaptation.”
In six wins to start the season, the Flashes lost only three sets.
“The heart and the fight this team had to start the season after that kind of offseason was awesome to see,” Gromala said. “It was great to see us keep rolling with it for so long.”
After their first loss of the season to Eastern Michigan University, the Flashes swept the University of Toledo without losing a single set. They would lose back-to-back games to undefeated Bowling Green State University, but each game went to a fifth set.
But after that, KSU would drop six of their last 10 games of the season, including a three-game losing streak to end the year.
“The grind of the last couple weeks was tough,” Gromala said. “It’s especially hard when you lose some players to injury. Our team fought hard.”
Junior libero Erin Gardner, who was the team’s leader in digs, was injured at the end of the team’s game against Bowling Green. Sophomore outside hitter Taylor Heberle, who was averaging 3.02 kills per set, would also miss the rest of the season after the series against BGSU.
Gromala said he was especially proud of how his team played against some of its greater opponents.
“Outside of this weekend we were consistently competing with the best teams in the MAC,” he said, “and that’s really exciting for us to build off of.”
With the majority of the team being sophomores and juniors, the Flashes will have a very similar roster next season. On top of that, several freshman saw a lot of playing time.
Gromala said the team has “an amazing group of young women.”
“They did great things all season,” he said, “and they’re going to continue to do great things in the future. We constantly had different players step up at different times when we needed them to.”
Sophomore outside hitter Savannah Matthews led the team in kills with 274 and in kills per set with 3.56. Gardner led the team in digs per set with 4.76. Junior middle blocker Lana Strejcek led the team in total blocks with 88 and averaged a team-high 1.11 blocks per set.
Gromala said his team is already excited for next season.
“Obviously we’re not happy with this finish,” he said. “But we have a lot of great things to take away from this season. We’re really excited for what the future holds. And our ultimate goal is to compete for the championship.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.