DURANT — The Durant volleyball team played itself into an opportunity it needed.
Despite trailing by as many as five points in the first set of a River Valley Conference match with West Branch on Thursday night, the Wildcats rallied back to take a pair of one-point leads late in the opening game.
Each time, though, Bears senior attackers Claire Bridges and Abby Knoop had an answer, helping West Branch hold off the Wildcats for an all-important first-set victory, 27-25.
“Momentum would be good at this point,” said Durant coach Renee Meyer, whose team entered Thursday on an eight-match losing streak. “We needed that game bad to carry us over in the next two. We had our chances and we didn’t take advantage of our front row. It’s very frustrating.”
West Branch (13-6, 3-3 RVC) seized the momentum, overcoming a young, fighting Durant team to win the final two sets 25-19, 25-20 and sweep to a match victory behind Bridges and Knoop, who each had 17 kills, and strong defensive play that thwarted a re-tooled Wildcats attack.
“It was absolutely crucial to how the rest of the match went,” West Branch coach John Walsh said of the first set. “I’ve been on both sides of that coin before. When you play a tight game and you win, it just gives you that little jumping point for the next set. When you don’t win it, it’s tough to battle out of the hole right off the bat in the second set.”
The Wildcats (5-9, 2-4) find themselves in a similar situation overall after a 5-0 start to the season.
A good deal of their troubles started when sophomore Aubrin Dittmer, who was the team’s second-leading attacker and tied for the lead in blocks entering Thursday despite playing half the sets her teammates had, went down with a severe high-ankle sprain.
She last played Sept. 13 at North Cedar.
“One of the main things we’re struggling with right now is blocking. [Dittmer] and [Kamryn Meyer] were our two leading blockers, and it hurts not having her up there to block,” Meyer said. “She was second in kills, too, I think. That’s a good amount of our points that are gone. And we’ve had to re-arrange everybody.”
Former libero Cathy Ralfs, who was second to Meyer with six kills Thursday, is a hitter now along with Ruby Kappeler, who still sets in addition to hitting. Meyer led the way with eight kills against the Bears, but the Wildcats had just 10 total kills the final two games.
Part of that was because the Bears played a setter behind the blockers to take away the tips that the shorter Durant hitters tried to utilize, but Meyer said her team is still adjusting to the changes that are just a week old.
“The kids got comfortable in a rotation, then we had injuries and we had to switch them around, and they’re just not comfortable in their new rotations,” she said.
West Branch, meanwhile, was able to utilize its two senior hitters in Bridges and Knoop to help hold off Durant in the final two sets with key points. The duo each hit better than a .237 percentage for the match.
“We’re getting better at driving the ball to spots that we want on the court, seeing what the opponent's defense has to offer us and getting it to where they’re not standing," Walsh said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight."
While there is some frustration building for a Wildcats team that Meyer admitted is playing inconsistent, the third-year coach understands she's starting one senior and plays a rotation with four or five sophomores.
“With the amount of youth we are putting on the court each night, we are making progress,” Meyer said. “It's just not something that's going to happen overnight.”