Volleyball team wraps up non-conference play in Mississippi tournament

Maher Kawash, Volleyball Reporter


Non-conference play gives teams in any sport a chance to see where they stack up against the rest of the playing field.

And that hasn’t panned out very well for a young Eastern volleyball team.

The Panthers have just two wins in their first 11 matches of the season, but have a chance to wrap up their non-conference slate on a good note this weekend.

Eastern travels to Starkville, Mississippi for the Mississippi State four-team tournament beginning Friday and concluding Saturday night.

“We lost two tough five set matches last weekend where we were close to pulling out the wins,” Eastern coach Sam Wolinski said. “We need to cut out two errors and find a way to earn two more points.”

While the Panthers win column has not seen much success, their growth as a team has proved otherwise.

Eastern continues to carry along this season with no seniors on the team, and it has given some younger players a chance to step up into bigger roles.

Sophomore Taylor Smith has emerged as a top player for the team, in the conference, and even across the nation.

Smith recorded two triple-doubles in last weekend’s Panther Classic, and now leads all of NCAA Division-1volleyball with five on the season.

But the growth of talent has not stopped there for the Eastern squad.

Freshman Maggie Runge has adjusted quickly since joining the team, notching 22 blocks last weekend to lead the Ohio Valley Conference in blocks and blocks per set.

Sophomore Abby Knight has also given the Panthers a boost in her second year as the team’s most consistent hitter.

Knight leads the team with a .252 hitting percentage, ranking her tenth in the conference.

“Every weekend we are making progress, and everyone is becoming more comfortable,” Wolinski said.

That progress will need to continue if the Panthers are going to have any success during the Mississippi State tournament.

The highlight or toughest match of the weekend will come against the tournament host Mississippi State.

Mississippi State comes into the tournament at 5-5 on the year, but is also the only team to come from a Power 5 conference to face the Panthers this season.

The 2 p.m. Saturday match will be the third and final match of the tournament for Eastern.

The two teams have seen each other just once in program history, a three-set win for the Panthers in 1989.

The unfamiliarity will continue throughout the whole tournament as Eastern has never faced Troy or Florida International in program history.

The Panthers open tournament play against Florida International today at 5 p.m., and that will be a battle of sub .500 teams.

The Golden Eagles come into the tournament with a 4-5 record on the season, but are coming off a four-set win against North Florida.

Troy will be the second matchup of the tournament for Eastern, and the Trojans come into the tournament with a 6-5 record on the year.

“FIU and Troy will be good matches for us but our toughest test will be against Mississippi State,” Wolinski said.

The Panthers begin OVC play Sept. 21 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, followed by a clash with Belmont Sept. 23.

Maher Kawash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]