ROCK SPRINGS – The #3-seeded Western Wyoming Community College Mustangs avenged last week’s five-set loss to #2-seeded Casper College with a thrilling victory in the second round of the Region IX North Tournament on Thursday. The win sets up a showdown with top-seeded Northwest College on Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Rushmore Gymnasium.
It was a seesaw battle – 25-23, 18-25, 25-22, 25-27, 15-11. The Mustangs were one point away from winning the match in the fourth game, when they led 25-24 with serve. But unforced errors gave Casper an opening to send the evening contest into a decisive fifth game. This time it was the Mustangs playing on their home court, in front of an ecstatic crowd of Rushmore Rowdies, and despite trailing by three twice in the set the Mustangs overpowered the Thunderbirds in a 15-11 finish.
They did so without the physical presence of sophomore outside hitter Leah Heger, who had exited the match in the second game with what appeared to be a significant injury. Western had won the first game but trailed badly in the second even before Heger departed. But the dominant hitter gave her teammates and the crowd a thumbs-up as she was helped out of the gymnasium, and the Rowdies’ chants of “Win for Leah” punctuated the action for the rest of the night.
“We talked about going in two different directions, either stepping it up for Leah or stepping it back and being selfish, and we agreed that we were going to step it up for Leah,” said Mustang Coach Wendy Bider after the game. “So that win was for her. Leah’s a trooper, and she’s such a hard worker. That kid has got my heart. She’s a neat kid.”
Details about Heger’s injury and her status for the remainder of the region tourney were uncertain as of Thursday night.
When play resumed after the injury timeout, the Mustangs put on a strong rally. Despite coming up short, they carried that momentum into the third game, which they won. The fourth game was as exciting a set as the Mustangs have played all season, but they just couldn’t quite put Casper away.
“A little bit of anxiety, I think, at the end, with both of our attackers. We just made unforced errors. If we would have cleaned it up, we should have sealed the deal in the fourth game,” Bider said.
The Thunderbirds seemed to have caught their wind after pulling out the fourth game, and a strong start in the fifth had them up on the Mustangs 6-3 at one point. But that advantage didn’t last.
“I kind of felt like we had the momentum when we eventually tied it up,” Bider said. “We also had two really tough servers that came back, Lexi English and Alexa Goulding. When they stepped back, I felt pretty confident about us being able to control the tempo of the game, because they were taking their passers out of their serve receive, and they weren’t having as many options to hit. And Casper ended up making some unforced errors, which helped us immensely at the end. That was a flip-flop from game four, when we had the unforced errors. It was nice to see that they were human also.”
With Heger out, freshman middle blocker Abbie Darling dominated in the front court for Western, leading a powerful Mustang attack. When the crowd wasn’t chanting “Win for Leah,” they were chanting “Abbie Darling,” instead.
“She was unstoppable,” Bider said. “I told her, ‘I want to touch you, because you have the gift of nothing going wrong for you!’ I don’t know how many kills she had, but she probably led the group.”
Once again, the home crowd was the critical seventh player on the floor for Western.
“Our Rowdies are amazing,” Bider said. “They are something I’ve never had (before), the opportunity to have that kind of support. And they come to every game. So we need for them to come back at 4 p.m. on Friday!”
As impressive as the Mustangs have been so far this week, it doesn’t get any easier from here. Not only do they play NWC on Friday, but because this is a double-elimination tournament there is a possibility that, to win, Western will have to play Casper and/or NWC a second time on Saturday. Bider said she’s excited to see how her squad matches up with the Trappers.
“We’ve really got to take care of their right-side attack, and they have two very good outside hitters that we have to try to corral or wrangle. It will be a tough job, but I think we’re up to it,” the coach said.
In other action Thursday, NWC defeated Laramie County Community College. Casper and Sheridan will play at 12 p.m. Friday and LCCC will play Eastern Wyoming College at 2 p.m., with the winners of those two games playing at 6 p.m.