It is not how you start; it is how you finish.
That is what the Eastern volleyball will hope to follow as it closes the book on the non-conference slate of its schedule.
The Panthers knew there would be growing pains as they came into the season with no seniors, and that has been the story with a 3-11 record heading into conference play.
While the wins have come at a premium, the growth of this team has not.
Eastern has freshmen filling in positions they have never played before and transfers such as junior Hayley Richardson playing one of the most important positions at libero.
But although growth is important, wins are as well, and the Panthers head into the Ohio Valley Conference play with a clean slate.
The 3-11 record may matter to some, but the Panthers’ focus turns completely to a midweek matchup against Southern Illinois Edwardsville.
Road games are never easy, but Eastern receives its first OVC test there.
The Panthers head to Edwardsville to play a Cougar team that comes into play boasting a 7-4 record on the year.
While Southern Illinois heads in with a better record, it is Eastern that comes in with the higher odds to win conference.
The Panthers were selected to finish fourth in the OVC this season as the Cougars were voted to finish ninth.
Regardless of the odds, both teams come into play at 0-0 in conference play.
The Panthers’ biggest task will be to contain a dynamic duo on Southern Illinois’ side of the court.
The Cougars post up Ashley Witt and Taylor Joens on the offensive end, and both have carried the team with triple-digit kills this season.
Witt leads the team with 129 kills, averaging 3.07 per set, and Joens follows right behind with 127 kills and 2.95 per set.
It does not end there for the Cougars though as they bring in an anchor on the defensive end as well.
Eastern is dealt the task of making it past Katie Shashack who leads Southern Illinois with 214 digs this season and 4.98 per set.
Shashack stands out on the defensive end as no other Cougars have more than 125 digs thus far.
The Panthers have some fresh talent of their own, as well as an NCAA statistic leader.
Sophomore Taylor Smith has led the Panthers, the OVC and all of Division I volleyball in triple-doubles this year.
Smith notched her sixth of the season in last weekend’s tournament, and that brings her within one of her total from all of last season.
Red-shirt sophomore Gina Furlin is also enjoying being back on the court in her second campaign as she was forced to sit out all of last season due to injury.
Furlin earned All-Tournament honors last weekend for the first time in her career.
Freshman Maggie Runge will try to cause fits for the Cougars’ offense as she leads the OVC with 65 blocks on the year.
The Panthers continue to grow through each set this season, and now they face the test of growing and winning against conference opponents.
The conference opener for Eastern against Southern Illinois Edwardsville begins Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Maher Kawash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]