By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — With a 5-17 record, the McAlester Lady Buffalo volleyball team will head to Tuesday’s Regional tournament seeded fourth.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Lady Buffs, as they’ll open Regionals against Tahlequah — the only one of their potential opponents against which they’ve already played.
“I feel very confident about my team,” Lady Buffs coach Anita Burns said Saturday.
“They were super-excited on Friday when I told them the pairing for the Regional that we had drawn. Some of the comments were, ‘We can beat them,’ ‘We know what their gameplan is,’ ‘We’ve practiced that.’”
McAlester played Tahlequah on Sept. 10, losing in three games. The Lady Buffs scored at least 11 points in all three games, however, making an upset possible if the defense can step up.
“We have spent a great deal of time working on serve, serve-receive and fine-tuning our defense against tips and pushes and not just the hard-driven hits,” Burns said. “So we have a gameplan, and we’ve been able to institute that gameplan against different opponents and have some success with it.”
Burns added that her team looked vulnerable to tip-and-push offenses earlier in the season, leading to its current defensive strategy.
“We purposed from that we had to defend it,” she said. “We just had to, and we needed to learn to play that game, to be able to use it to our benefit to be able to make points with it, but also to defend it.”
Learning how to defend against tips and pushes like they could face at Regionals requires what Burns called “court awareness.” Multiple defensive reps help build that awareness, but so does learning how to tip on offense.
“If you’re offensively using push-and-tip, you’re seeing the holes,” Burns said.
“I’m hoping that it all gels together.”
Burns said she’s looking for her offense to “play smart.” That means mixing it up between hard spikes and softer tips, and it also means keeping those tips flat enough and tight enough to the net that they don’t turn into free passes for the other side.
“We put the elastic up at the top of the antennas, and that was our goal, was to keep things under,” Burns said.
“They need to find the holes on the floor and put the balls in the holes.”
Though it hasn’t always translated into wins, Burns said she’s been happiest with her team’s mental development through the season. The Lady Buffs have learned how to maintain team spirit and effort even in a loss, and how to shrug off mistakes before they turn into long scoring runs for opponents.
“We do that with a lot of error-correction,” Burns said. “If a rally ends during practice, try to toss the ball or hit the ball or whatever to the person who made the mistake and allow them to correct their error and continue on with the rally. I feel that gives the girls some confidence.”
It also simulates a common volleyball strategy of targeting the weakest player on a team, especially on serve-receive.
If the Lady Buffs get past Tahlequah, the eighth-ranked team in 5A who went 31-7 in the regular season, they’ll face either Coweta or Skiatook in the finals, the winner then going onto State. Burns said the Lady Buffs saw Skiatook a little during a summer tournament at Catoosa, but they’ll do most of their scouting during the Skiatook-Coweta semifinal, which will take place after Tahlequah-McAlester.
As Regionals are single-elimination tournaments, a loss to Tahlequah would mean the end to McAlester’s season and the end to volleyball for seniors Kylie Murdaugh, Skyler LeFors and Krystal Hixson. Burns said Murdaugh has really embraced the physical demands of being a middle blocker, which is often called the team’s “workhorse” because the middle has to block from three different spots at the net and also hit.
“She has really determined herself to end points and to be the defender that prevents them from scoring on us,” Burns said of Murdaugh.
“She still, and always will be, a pure joy to be around.”
Setter Emily Taylor and starting hitters Breeze McLaughlin and Preziosita Crawford should all be back next year, however. About to finish her first year as a head varsity volleyball coach, Burns said she’s appreciated the support she’s gotten from the McAlester athletics department and its many coaches.
The biggest coaching lesson for Burns: “Try to be as consistent as possible.”
“I learned that it was a very good thing to always have a practice plan, and I developed a little notebook that helps me coordinate that and gives me lots of different options,” Burns said.
McAlester faces off against Tahlequah on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. Tahlequah High School is at 591 Pendleton Street.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.