By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Bria Morgan already was optimistic that things were about to change, and a quick heart-to heart with her teammates only boosted the positive vibe. No fewer than 91 swings later, she was feeling even better.
Not that anything was easy, and there certainly were plenty of bumps and bruises along the way, but the University of Hawaii at Hilo volleyball team and its freshman workhorse finally savored victory. Morgan smacked a career-high 28 kills as the Vulcans outlasted Dixie State 25-17, 26-24, 22-25, 25-18 on Monday night at UHH Gym to end a season-opening seven-match losing streak.
“I’m so excited,” said Morgan, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Roseville, Calif. “When I was walking here, I was thinking it’s going to be a really good day. As soon as I got to the gym, we had a team meeting and we felt cohesive.”
The outlook wasn’t so bright a day earlier. Upset with his team’s work habits Sunday, coach Tino Reyes cut short practice after only 30 minutes. That prompted some of the Vuls’ veterans to call a meeting to try and turn things around.
“We all sat in a circle and we talked about how we needed to come together and how it’s not an individual sport,” Morgan said. “We all benefit from each other. That’s the reason why we won. We definitely came together more as a team.”
Sophomore middle blocker Olivia Lane returned after injuring her ankle in the middle of the third set and finished with eight kills and senior Patty Snel added seven to go along with a match-high 28 digs for UHH (1-7, 1-1 Pacific West Conference). Freshman setter Jolie Au’s 38 assists led all players.
While the Vuls were simply overmatched by more experienced teams with more firepower in some of their previous losses, a Red Storm squad that also relies heavily on freshmen provided a much fairer test.
Senior outside hitter Brita Jensen posted 17 kills and 20 digs for Dixie State (2-4, 0-1) and 6-3 freshman middle blocker Mercedes O’Neal really got cranking in the third set and finished with an efficient 11 kills and a .348 hitting percentage. Each team ended with 51 kills, but the Red Storm only took 11 more swings than UHH yet committed 10 more errors.
“It was a battle of attrition,” Reyes said. “Whoever was going to make the (least) mistakes was going to win. That’s essentially what happened.”
The third-year coach was demonstrative and offered some harsh criticism during the match, and victory No. 1 did little to ease his comfort level heading into UHH’s home contest at 7 p.m. Wednesday against No. 15 Grand Canyon (10-1, 0-1).
“There are some plays that we don’t even see what’s going on on the other side,” he said. “I don’t understand how we can play the game that way. It kills me to watch that.”
Morgan’s workload — she taken 172 swings the past two matches in setting consecutive career highs — was also too much for his taste.
“I’m happy that she can swing that many times, but it’s like being a baseball pitcher. If she’s going nine innings every game and throwing 150 pitches, eventually she’s going to wear down,” Reyes said.
Still, the Vulcans rode Morgan as usual Monday night, and despite 10 hitting errors, she came through when needed.
Morgan hit .643 to carry the way in the opening set to help her team overcome five service errors, and she delivered consecutive points off sets from Au to break a 24-24 tie as the Vulcans rallied to win Game 2 after trailing by as many as seven. After a supbar third set, UHH raced out to a 22-9 lead in Game 4 on the strength of Morgan’s nine kills.
Middle blocker Abbey Wade is a player that Reyes would like to see the Vulcans work more sets for, and the sophomore provided a spark with four kills, including a point that gave UHH a 24-13 lead in Game 4.
That brought the crowd to its feet in anticipation of match point, but things almost got dicey. The Red Storm reeled off five consecutive points before a misplay by O’Neal finally gave everyone a chance to celebrate.
The sweet taste of victory is one that Morgan hopes the Vuls can bottle up and use over and over again.
“I think we’re going to take how this felt, this exact feeling, and we’re going to put it into every match and we’re going to start really strong in every game and just play as a team,” she said.