SEATTLE -- Sometimes, it takes a loss to mold a winner. For Wisconsin, Texas, Washington and Penn State, painful losses paved the road to future success. Each of the teams playing for the Division I championship this week in Seattle endured a low moment in the 2013 season that, looking back, proved to be a turning point. And for all of them, it eventually pointed to the national semifinals.
Texas All-American Haley Eckerman remembers Sept.13—a Friday—in Champaign, Ill. The defending national champions had just been shut out by Arizona State 3-0 (25-18, 25-23, 25-21). “That's when we realized we needed to change something,” Eckerman said. “No matter how we played, who we were playing against, it didn't matter; we needed to come out tough. And we knew everyone was going to play their toughest against us and we had a huge target on our back.”The Arizona State loss was a major catalyst for two big coaching decisions. For one, the Longhorns thought twice about using a 6-2 (two setter) offense, and stuck with a 5-1 the rest of the way. For another, Texas coach Jerritt Elliott took a longer look at freshman middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu. “We had been debating as a staff whether to play Chiaka,” Elliott said. “We said we're going to give her a shot.”
Ogubu became a regular, and is hitting over .400 for the season. Texas hasn’t lost since. “We became more of a unit in terms of where we could score in different higher percentages and kill percentage and managing our game,” Elliott said.
Elliott and his players believe the lessons learned from those changes played a role in the Longhorns’ biggest win of season so far: last Saturday’s 3-0 win against Nebraska in Lincoln.
“One of the things we're always trying to do is continue to learn about our identity and who we are,” Elliott said. “The biggest thing we did in that game is we felt threatened. We came out. Our focus was better throughout an entire match, and now they understand that.”
For Wisconsin, Nov. 6 was the key date. “The Purdue match when we lost in five at their place was a heartbreaker,” the Badgers’ Ellen Chapman said. “It was back and forth, and every single game was defined by two or three points. That was just a hard match to lose.”
“After that match we learned that, in important moments, we can't just play it safe, we can't just take the safe shots, that type of stuff," Chapman said. “Ever since that match we have grown as a team a lot and stepped up in those big moments.”
Hickey’s teammate, Courtney Thomas, cites an early near-win at Nebraska as another landmark moment. “We flew into that locker room and we knew we could have won that match,” she said. “I think that set a tone really early in the season for our team knowing that in front of 8,000 people we could have won that match.”
“You can find ways to get better,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said, “or you can sit there, make excuses and feel sorry for yourselves. And our team, it made them tougher.”
So tough, in fact, that the Badgers overcame the very same Purdue team in Saturday’s match to determine who would advance to the semifinals. Even so, Wisconsin’s nine losses this season look conspicuous next to the other three teams in Seattle, each of whom have lost just two.
“If losses make you tough,” Sheffield said, “Maybe we're the toughest team here.”
Penn State’s epiphany came at home against Michigan State, the very first match of the Big Ten season. “We were up 20 19,” PSU’s Ariel Scott said, “but we had a hard time closing out games.” The Spartans beat the Nittany Lions 3-2 (25-23, 26-24, 19-25, 19-25, 15-9), prompting a post-match reaction from Penn State head coach Russ Rose.
“We had a little longer conversation after the match than we might have some other games,” Rose said. “A lot of them needed to look at why they were unable to play their best at a key time at home against a really good opponent.”
Penn State marched through the rest of the Big Ten season without a loss, but again played a “really good opponent” when it faced Stanford on Saturday. In the fifth set, the Nittany Lions trailed 9-6. “I think we relaxed,” Rose said, “and knew we could play better and needed to get the next side out. We went on a five point run and next thing you know we're winning 11-9.”
But this time, Penn State closed the deal. The lesson from the Michigan State loss stuck: close out the game.
“We stayed confident that whole time,” Scott said, with a smile.
Early in the Pac-12 season, Washington headed for the Rocky Mountains, where it suffered its first loss to upstart Colorado 3-1. “That loss was a wake up call for us,” senior libero Jenna Orlandini said. “That week we were ranked number one and we got in the wrong mindset. At any point a team can beat you. That was the first time I think we were like: ‘You guys, our backs are against the wall here; we've gotta change something.’”
Just as Texas had done after losing to Arizona State, Washington tinkered with its lineup. In its 6-2 offense, it paired setter Jenni Nogueras with Kaleigh Nelson, and setter Katy Beals with Kylin Muñoz. Even so, Washington barely slipped past Utah one match later.
“[Washington head coach] Jim [McLaughlin] got on me pretty hard after that [Utah] match,” All-American Krista Vansant said. “I think if he wouldn't have done that, I wouldn't have had the season I had. That was a big turning point for me personally; it was really a big wake up call.”
And, like Wisconsin, Texas and Penn State before them, Washington used that call at a crucial moment: twice facing match point elimination against USC on the Trojans’ home court last Saturday.
“I think I can speak for the entire team,” Vansant said. “We all hate losing more than anything. Even if it's a random drill in practice, we get pretty upset.
“We remembered what it feels like to lose and we don't want to have that feeling again for the rest of the season.”