Column: Panthers will get better in OVC play

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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It was a rough preseason for the Panthers playing in non-conference matchups, but that tough competition has geared them up for the start of Ohio Valley Conference play.

Eastern finished tied for second in the OVC for the regular season in 2015 after that team also struggled in non-conference play.

The Panthers finished 11-5 in OVC play and at times seemed like they could win the whole thing.

Arguably the best match for the Panthers came on Oct. 24 when they hosted Murray State.

Murray State finished as the top team in the regular season and started a perfect 9-0 in OVC play.

Eastern pulled off what seemed like the impossible with the way the Racers were playing in the conference and came away with a 3-2 win in a five-set thriller.

The energy and noise from the Panthers and the fans was unmatched in any other match of the season.

Coach Sam Wolinski was speechless after the win.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, that would be the highlight of that season as they had a first-round exit in the OVC tournament.

Tennessee Tech took down the Panthers in five sets. Eastern had a clean 3-0 sweep of the Golden Eagles to start the season.

One question mark still remains and that is how the young Panthers will find a way to keep getting better every day.

The Panthers come into OVC play following a 3-0 sweep over Troy and a 3-0 loss to Mississippi State.

Despite the lack of wins, sophomore Taylor Smith had an incredible preseason and even became the national leader in triple-doubles in all of Division I volleyball. She leads the nation with six triple doubles.

What is even more impressive is she is just one shy of matching her season total from last year. Eastern has 17 matches left.

In just her second season, Smith has already earned 114 kills, along with 224 assists and 153 digs. She and junior Maria Brown both dominated in more than one category in non-conference play in 14 matches.

Brown recorded 102 kills and 141 digs.

Eastern will have to wait a few days until they get to play their first OVC home match. And when that day comes it will not be an easy task.

Eastern is set to host tournament champ Belmont Friday at 6 p.m. in Lantz Arena.

The Bruins are the favorite to win the OVC again this season. The Panthers fell to Belmont 3-1 last year.

But first they see Southern Illinois Edwardsville, whose season the Panthers ruined last year by beating them in the final week of the season.

The loss made it official that the Cougars would not make the OVC tournament.

Eastern can expect a hungry SIUE team looking to get revenge on the Panthers.

This can get the Panthers ready for the tough test with Belmont Friday.

Yes, it may be tough with having no senior on the team after losing Stephanie Wallace, Kayla Nesbitt, Marah Bradbury, Chelsea Lee and Abby Saalfrank to graduation.

But the freshmen got plenty of experience in the non-conference matches and held their own against the tough competition.

Eastern should be able to have another successful season in OVC play and earn another trip to the tournament, which is hosted on the top team’s floor.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]