Updated Mon, Oct 14, 2013 2:42 pm
The smell of stale air and the squeak of sneakers against hardwood floor fill Ban Johnson Arena as practice drags into its second hour. The Marietta College Pioneers take their positions on either side of the net while head coach Ray Costa orders them into a drill.
Suddenly the once-still atmosphere blossoms into a cacophony of screams; orders on where to line up, who to watch and information on who’s serving. Sweat slowly trickles off the server’s brow as she lobs the ball into the air, jumps off one foot and crisply smashes the ball just over the net to begin the rally. The feeling in the air is tense as each player knows that her spot is in jeopardy, that she must put everything into every hit, dig and block, and that the season is coming to a close. They know that coming weeks may mean the difference between an NCAA tournament berth and a disappointing walk back to the locker rooms.
Coming off a 17-12 season and receiving fourth in their conference, the Pioneers currently hold a 10-13 record as they pass the two-thirds point of the season. Marietta plans to meet its season goals of finishing in the top three in the Ohio Athletic Conference, improving from fourth last year, and planning to reach the NCAA tournament, according to Costa.
Many things have changed for the Pioneers this season: they have a lot of young talent making major contributions to the team, more back-to-back games in tournament play and are facing higher-caliber, nationally-ranked opponents. But Costa plans to fulfill his season’s goals including one more; to improve on a daily basis no matter what records may indicate.
“I don’t think our record is really indicative of our overall performance in comparison to last year,” he said. “I believe many of the things that we struggled at early in the year have improved quite a bit, and that you will see our record improve as we shift away from tournament formats where we play three or four matches in a weekend, and into single matches.”
This season has brought some struggles, but the Pios have also seen young players step into the spotlight and it shows the depth of the program.
“It obviously speaks to our ability to have a very bright future for the program,” Costa said. “They compete hard, and push our older players to improve each day.”
Two of these players are sophomore right side hitter Keri Horton, who leads the team in kills with 172 and sophomore right outside hitter Kennedy Clyde who both log many minutes behind the net.
Horton has been an especially nice surprise for Marietta this season, putting in extra effort in every play and showing offensive versatility as she is near the top in many offensive statistics.
“I think the biggest difference in Keri from last year to this year is her comfort level on the right side,” Costa said. “She obviously spent a lot of time this summer working on her game, and it has been apparent in the way she’s playing. She has done a much better job of reducing her errors, and as a result her overall efficiency has improved quite a bit.”
Clyde has proved to be just as indispensable to the Pioneers and has proven real worth on the offensive end. She isn’t far behind Horton with 147 kills of her own, ranks third in assists on the team, and has 16 service aces while averaging 1.75 kills per set.
Clyde said she is very confident in her team and truly believes the team can make a deep run into the post season and end with a winning record.
“I think my goal for the future is to reach the Sweet 16,” she said. “I think we can go 22-12 or 20-12, but I definitely want a 20-win season.”
At this point last season the Pioneers were on a five-game losing streak, but they turned it around to win four of their last six games. A 20-win season is achievable if Marietta continues to learn from its mistakes.
According to Costa, many of the mistakes made this season have been due to mental aspects of the game and the ability to bounce back from mistakes and losses. He also said he believes that many of the things that the team struggled with early on in the season have been remedied and that the team’s record has improved as it’s moved away from tournament formats into single matches.
“A lot of the things we focus on in practice revolve around being more consistent,” Costa said. “The difference in a game that we lose 25-21 is usually two to three mental errors or missed opportunities over 46 points. When you realize that boils down to 4-6 percent efficiency, it’s really about improving all of the little things so that you can eliminate an error or two.”
As the season comes to a close, the Pioneers are looking at six more matches before beginning the postseason. Three of these matches are at home, all of them are OAC conference matches, and one is against rival Otterbein University.
If Marietta hopes for a shot at the postseason, they are going to need some major wins and to finish the season as a stronger team, no matter what the result.
“For us, being a young team, it’s not so much how we started the season, but how we finish,” Costa said. “How is our ability to focus on the small details on a daily basis and [how can we] improve, so that we can better compete with some of the top teams in the country and our region?”