Morehead St., led by Lohmeier, fueled by player input, back in tourney for first time since 2013

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NCAA volleyball Morehead State 4/9/2021-Morehead State volleyball
Morehead State's Olivia Lohmeier hits against Eastern Illinois:Sandy King, EIU Athletics

Like all his counterparts, Morehead State coach Jaime Gordon gives his players scouting reports of each opponent before a match. But with this season’s scheduling quirk that had Ohio Valley Conference teams playing two-game series, Gordon added a twist.

He allowed the players to craft the scouting report for the second game of each series.

The Eagles (16-1) were undefeated in the second match of every series.

“I’m not sure what that says about my coaching,” Gordon said with a laugh.

Whatever Gordon and his players did, it worked to near-perfection. The Eagles earned the OVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 and open against Big East-champion Creighton (12-3) in Omaha, Nebraska (which happens to be where Creighton is located), on Wednesday.

It is only the third trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, with all of them coming during Gordon’s 18-year tenure.

“It’s sunk in a little I think,” said senior Olivia Lohmeier, who was named OVC Player of the Year for the second time. “Now we’re back at practices, and it’s routine again and we’re preparing for another game. But once we get there, it will finally sink in.”

For Lohmeier, the journey to the tournament has been a steady climb. During her freshman season (2017), the Eagles didn’t even qualify for the conference tournament. Two years ago, Morehead State lost in the OVC semifinals.

Last season, the Eagles reached the title match — upsetting top-seeded Jacksonville State in the process — only to fall to second-seeded Southeast Missouri State in the final.

This season, Morehead State left nothing to chance. They dominated the OVC, losing only the penultimate match of the regular season to Jacksonville State.

As it turned out, that would be the first of three straight meetings between the programs. The next night — using the players’ scouting report, of course — the Eagles thumped JSU 3-0. After a walk-over in the semifinals of the conference tournament — SIUE was forced to pull out because of covid-19 protocols — Morehead again battered Jacksonville State, 3-0, to win the title.

“Ever since I’ve gotten here, one of my main focuses was to win a championship and bring it back to Morehead,” said Lohmeier, a 6-foot-1 outside from Cincinnati. “We needed everyone on board. It’s super meaningful. We’ve gotten better each year … To finally achieve that championship has been amazing.”

Morehead State coach Jaime Gordon/Jim Cundiff, Off the Trail Photography

Gordon said his team was able to reach its goal by keeping the focus off of it.

“We spend a lot of time not talking about wins and results and more about process and improvement,” he said. “I’d say over the last three years, one of the things that has been unique about this team from day 1 … we improved all the way through.

“It’s to really embrace the process and embrace the improvements our athletes are making individually and as a team.”

Of course, having a talented roster helps. Lohmeier has accumulated nearly 1,500 kills in her decorated career. This season, she led the OVC in four major offensive categories: kills (255), kills per set (4.40), points (294.5) and points per set (5.08).

“She is one of the most competitive and driven players I have had the opportunity to coach,” said Gordon, who earned his fourth OVC Coach of the Year award. “She has committed so much to her own personal development academically and athletically, and the last two years has carried that on to developing her teammates and the people around her.”

Three of those teammates also earned spots on the OVC all-conference teams: sophomore setter Bridget Bessler (first team), senior outside hitter Lauren Rokey (first team) and sophomore outside/middle blocker Abby Hulsman.

Hulsman is back in form after undergoing elbow surgery during the holiday break. She has four double-digit kill matches in the past nine, including a personal-best 16 in a win at Eastern Kentucky. Bessler led the OVC in assists per set (11.72), and Rokey ranked eighth in the conference with 3.28 kills per set.

Redshirt-freshman middle hitter McKenzee Wagner also has been a revelation. At 6-foot-5, she is an imposing presence at the net and used her physical gifts to lead the conference in hitting percentage (.392) and rank third in blocks per set (1.06).

As impressive as the Eagles were on offense, Lohmeier said she believes defense is the team’s hallmark. Statistics support her claim: Morehead State led the OVC in opponent hitting percentage (.138) and ranked third in blocks per set (2.28).

“I think our defense is playing really well,” Lohmeier said. “Coach always mentions we are one of the top teams passing and serving. But also our blocking, we’re doing really well, and that has gradually improved since I have been here.”

Said Gordon: “I think any coach will tell you serving and passing is the key to this game at any level, and I think this is one of the best serving and passing teams we’ve had.”

This well-rounded group took care of business in the OVC, losing only to Jacksonville State in five in the next-to-last regular-season match. But Morehead swept the next day.

The biggest task lies ahead.

Morehead is winless in its previous two trips to the NCAA Tournament, and Creighton, though it didn’t crack the April 5 edition of the AVCA Top 25, received votes.

The Eagles have been busy watching film on Creighton — and, perhaps, deciding whether to use Gordon’s scouting report or the players.’ Either way, Lohmeier said they are prepared to give their all in Omaha.

“I think we’ll take our excitement and turn it into focus and take it one match at a time, one set at a time,” she said. “Whatever happens, happens. But we can’t become overconfident, and we have to keep up our work ethic.”

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Creighton went 7-1 in the Big East, which included a split with Marquette, who did not get an at-large NCAA bid. The Bluejays had a tough pre-conference schedule, sweeping Omaha and Northern Iowa before splitting five-set matches with Summit League-champion South Dakota. Creighton saw five of its matches canceled, as well.

But after a non-conference loss at Kansas State, the Bluejays beat Xavier twice to end the regular-season and then swept UConn in the Big East semifinals. Then Creighton beat Marquette in four sets for its sixth Big East title in seven seasons.

Kirsten Bernthal-Booth’s team has a balanced offense, led by junior outside Jaela Zimmerman, who has 182 kills (3.43/set), and sophomore outside Keeley Davis (160 kills). Senior middle Naomi Hickman leads with 70 blocks, and freshman Ellie Bolton has 212 digs.

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Chuck Curti is a sports copy editor and writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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