EOU team photo

The Eastern Oregon volleyball team enters the national tournament with one of the best defenses in the nation, as their 2.7 block-per-set average is tied for second in NAIA. 

Eastern Oregon University head volleyball coach Kaki McLean-Morehead said her team has bounced back well from its loss to Southern Oregon in the Cascade Collegiate Conference title game.

The match also showed the team some areas to fine-tune as the No. 7 Mountaineers get ready for pool play in the NAIA national tournament, which begins Tuesday in Sioux City, Iowa.

“We need to up our game in serve receive and play a more balanced game (on offense),” McLean-Morehead said, noting the loss to SOU was a combination of the Raiders playing very well and Eastern not playing to its potential.

“That was a loss that we took pretty hard,” she added.

Losses have been few and far between, though, for EOU as it heads into the national tournament. The Mountaineers have one of the best records in the nation at 29-3, a high-ranked defense and an offense powered by one of the top attackers in program history in senior outside hitter Megan Bunn, who is just 18 kills shy of surpassing Casey Loper for No. 2 on the all-time list.

McLean-Morehead said, though, that teams are starting to key on Bunn, who led Eastern with 368 kills this season — more than 130 ahead of No. 2 attacker Cambree Scott (235) — so the Mountaineers will need to mix up the offense a bit more at nationals.

“Everyone knows the majority of the time the ball is going to go to Megan Bunn,” she said. “That’s great, but we have to have other people step up. People know that now, and they're going to start camping on her. They're going to start finding a way to shut her down.”

The coach said the adjustments will mean trying to set the middle and right-side more consistently, but could also include running some plays to the middle and right to Bunn. 

Junior setter Madison Pilon, who had 971 assists on the season, said the team is also working on increasing its pace of play. 

“Because of our size, speeding up our offense has been a focus,” she said, noting the team has been working on the pace for a few weeks. “(We’re) quickening up sets to the middle, and even the outside sets. When we receive a free ball from the other team (we’re also) speeding up the pass so we can beat them in transition.” 

Eastern has the pieces in place to mix up the offense at nationals, with Scott, Jet Taylor (215 kills) and Breanna Shaffer (192) all close to or past 200 kills. 

Taylor Tibbetts (144 kills) and Hailee Ackerman (133) will likely also play a key role on offense. Ackerman, the team’s No. 2 attacker a year ago, has been hampered much of the season with an ankle injury, but with two weeks between EOU’s last match and the beginning of nationals, the senior should have extra time to get closer to 100%.

Pilon said the Mountaineers have been running drills in practice designed to prepare them to throw different looks at the opposition. 

“If we're switching it up, the other team doesn't know where we're going,” she said, adding another emphasis will be on setting the middle hitters early in matches. “Being able to establish them early will give Megan a break later on.”

The Mountaineers’ pool features an opponent well known to EOU in recent seasons at nationals — Lindsey Wilson College. The Blue Raiders have had Eastern’s number, winning matches in 2015, 2017 and 2018, with the victories in ’15 and ’17 ending EOU’s season. 

Kasia Niderla has been LWC’s go-to attacker this season, leading the Blue Raiders (29-5) with 480 kills.

The Raiders have a new coach in Jerry Forbes after the departure of Andy Cavins, who led LWC to a national title in 2017, but McLean-Morehead said the team will still be a tough out, especially with Niderla in the middle.

“They’re still going to be a tough team. They have a few pieces that do return, (but) I like our chances and I’m excited to play them,” McLean-Morehead said. (Niderla’s) mobile, she can move stuff around. That's going to be hard for us to shut down.” 

Eastern faces LWC, the No. 2 seed in the pool and No. 10 team in the nation, in its final match in pool play Dec. 5.

The Mountaineers also face Madonna University out of Michigan and Reinhardt, based in Georgia.

Jodie Kelly is the primary offensive threat for Madonna (25-12), EOU's, opponent on Dec. 3, with an impressive 663 kills on the season, though she’s tallied more than 1,800 kill attempts, 1,000 more than any other player on the team. 

“She’s a solid outside. She does a nice job of using the block,” McLean-Morehead said.

Reinhardt, the Mountaineers’ opponent Dec. 4, comes in with the best record of any team in the pool at 33-2, but it has a loss on its slate to Lindsey Wilson and has played in a conference that isn’t as tough as the CCC, in McLean-Morehead’s opinion.

“In watching them (I've seen) they are successful, but their conference is not tough. That's going to benefit us,” she said.

Those teams will be up against a defense that is among the top in the nation, especially in blocks. Eastern is ranked second in the country with 2.7 blocks per set and has 305.5 on the year. The Mountaineers also are anchored on the back line by CCC libero of the year, Kiley McMurtrey.

If EOU grabs one of the top two spots in its pool, it’ll advance to the round of 16, which begins play Dec. 6. The quarterfinals are later that night, with the semifinals and championship match Dec. 7.

Pilon said they have talked all season about the elements they need to have to make a deep playoff run — including stamina, endurance and offensive speed — and believe the pieces are there. 

“If everything is in place, we're all on our A game, are disciplined, resilient, I definitely think we have the opportunity to get (to the final four),” she said. "It is something that we are constantly talking about. It’s a strong desire for us, the juniors and the seniors (especially). We've been there before. We know what it’s about.”

East Region Sports Editor

Ronald's primary beats are Eastern Oregon University, La Grande High School and the other eight high schools of Union and Wallowa counties. As an avid sports fan, he is primarily reading about or watching sports when he isn't covering a game.

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