DII women's notebook: Missouri Western State’s road back to the Top 25 and Wheeling Jesuit's volleyball title
The Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association has a strong presence in the world of DII women’s basketball. Last season the Emporia State Hornets made it to the Final Four before falling to the national champion California (PA). Fort Hays is currently No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll after defeating then-No. 1 ESU in a 71-70 thriller two weeks ago.
Entering the 2015-2016 season, the MIAA was a stacked conference. ESU — after winning the MIAA post season tourney — was projected to finish first, while Fort Hays — the 2014-2015 MIAA regular season champions — was expected to finish second. Central Missouri was slated to finish third, while a strong Pittsburgh State was fourth.
Projected to round out the top five were the Missouri Western State Griffons. But don’t tell them that.
They are 9-0 on the season with a 4-0 mark in the MIAA. They have already defeated Central Missouri and handed then-undefeated Pittsburgh State its first and only loss of the young season. They look to keep rolling with two MIAA matches slated this weekend.
Rob Edmisson took the helms four seasons ago, still helping the Griffons find their identity since NCAA violations set the program back nearly a decade ago. Infractions of allowing an illegible player play saw the Griffons stripped of wins and scholarships, amongst a few other rulings. MWSU has been searching for a trip back to the NCAA Championships since the 2003-2004 season.
Edmisson and his Griffons have patiently waited, finding the right pieces both on the recruiting trail and in the community colleges. They entered the 2015-2016 season with a veteran team of four seniors and three juniors. It is the first 9-0 start the team has had in nearly 20 years, dating back to the 1997-98 season.
“We are extremely excited about where we are at right now,” Edmisson said. “Missouri Western had a lot of tradition a decade ago, so it’s been a very challenging transition. But we’re excited to have Missouri Western back on the national map, and to do it in a conference that I believe is one of the best DII women’s basketball conferences in the country.”
Furthermore, since Edmisson took the helms four seasons ago, it has been a bumpy ride through the MIAA. The Griffons have not had a winning record in the conference for the past three seasons, but already find themselves at 4-0.
They have done it behind a MIAA best offense, scoring 88.9 points per game — ten better then the next closest team (ESU). Leading the way is senior guard LaQuinta Jefferson.
Jefferson just wrapped up her second MIAA Player of the Week Award and also has a National Player of the Week Award this season. The senior guard is averaging 22 points per game while chipping in 5.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and nearly two steals an outing. While she is the leading scorer on the court, she is by no means alone.
“There may be a lot of people that don’t know who she is,” Edmisson said. “But we’re talking about a guard that spends the whole season shooting between 50 and 60 percent. I call her the Kevin Durant of college basketball. She’s so efficient. She’s scoring 22 points a game, but she is averaging only 12 or 13 shots a game. She’s a special talent.”
This team has eight players averaging six or more points. Seniors Sarafina Hardy and Miliakere Koyamaijavure add 14.7 and 13.7 points a game. This high-octane team will give up some points (61.7 a game), but you are going to have to shoot the lights out to beat them.
“We just have a lot of pieces,” Edmisson said. “We don’t drop off when we sub, with nine or ten kids playing double-digit minutes. We’ve spent a lot of time with Jefferson on the bench, with Sarafina Hardy and Mili on the bench, and our kids have complete faith that someone is going to come in and pick up that space and that gap. They’ve really bought into each other, they believe.”
MWSU entered the polls three weeks ago at No. 18. The Griffons now sit atop a competitive MIAA and at No. 16 in the country. They are certainly a team to keep an eye as the season continues.
“This is the first season that I’ve been here that everybody on the team is one of my kids,” Edmisson said. “Everyone of these players had tons of options, we had to work very hard to convince these kids to come here and buy into our vision. When we took over, MWSU was ranked 280 out of 306 teams. Now we are in the top 20 on the national poll.
"I couldn’t be more proud of these kids. It’s amazing. This is my 30th season, and I’m smart enough to know that the more talent you have, the better coach you are. We have some talented kids. They all took chances on us, they all said, “hey let’s go some place and make a difference,” and I know they are really proud of where we are right know, because they are the ones responsible for it.”
Wheeling Jesuit University takes home volleyball title
Wheeling Jesuit University believed it all year. The Cardinals had never won a women’s volleyball title, but as they said throughout the season, “why not us?”
It was finally their time, as WJU brought home its first national championship Saturday in Tampa. Ranked No. 1 in the Atlantic Region, they defeated the South Region’s No. 1-seeded Palm Beach Atlantic in three straight sets.
"It means everything to me,” WJU head coach Christy Brenner told Wheeling Jesuit Athletics. “This is for every WJU volleyball alum. I am so blessed to work with my husband (assistant coach Matt Benner) and thank Wheeling Jesuit for taking a chance on us. This win is for every member of the WJU community.”
Wheeling Jesuit won the tournament in remarkable fashion. The Cardinals won their first three rounds with out losing a set, behind consecutive sweeps. They would drop one set in the quarterfinals to Arkansas-Fort Smith, but that would be it. They finished the tournament by defeating their opponents a combined 18 sets to one, certainly earning the right to hoist their first trophy.