Five for fighting: Penguins ride momentum into conference play

Junior Shannon Watson attempts a kill against Kent State University on Tuesday. Watson tied a team-high 12 kills in the Penguins’ 3-1 victory. Photo by Dustin Livesay/The Jambar.
Junior Shannon Watson attempts a kill against Kent State University on Tuesday. Watson tied a team-high 12 kills in the Penguins’ 3-1 victory. Photo by Dustin Livesay/The Jambar.

Sitting, and anxious to get back on the court, junior middle blocker Shannon Watson tried to stay as positive as possible, though it was never the easiest thing.

She missed the first six games due to a strained left abdominal injury and later tore it during preseason.

“It was hard mentally to just cheer from the sidelines,” Watson said. “I think it helped me realize what I needed to do, and it just made me fight harder to get my spot back.”

Watson got support from her Youngstown State University teammates, including senior middle blocker Nichele Johnson who is also her roommate.

“I think she’s a big part of the team, especially being in the middle like me,” Johnson said. “We’re just power hitters and are able to block.”

Watson made her debut against Arizona State University on Sept. 12 in the Illini Classic and admitted that she was rusty.

“Coming out in my debut against a big team like that, it was intimidating, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my best game,” she said. “It was hard not to baby it so much.

“At first, I was afraid that I was going to reinjure it, waiting for that pull again, but I never felt it. That just gave me the confidence to keep swinging away.”

Not only did Watson play rusty, but the rest of the team did as well, losing 3-0 in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Then, Sept. 17 came.

The Penguins fell to Bowling Green State University, 3-0, and were embarrassed in every facet of the game imaginable. By that point, YSU lost its sixth game out of the previous seven and were 4-7 overall.

That one game has changed the entire 2013 season up to this point.

“I think they were so embarrassed by their performance [that] there was a different attitude in the gym the next week that we had practice,” head coach Mark Hardaway said. “I really think Bowling Green was our worst performance of the year, and I think that really brought all of the points that we’ve been trying to make come together.”

Since that game, the Penguins have won five in a row, including a 3-1 victory over Kent State University on Tuesday at Beeghly Center, YSU’s final non-conference opponent.

The Penguins (9-7) cruised through the first two sets and looked to sweep the Flashes (7-8). Then, KSU rallied back and defeated the Penguins, 27-25, in the third set. Hardaway said he was worried about the third set going into the locker room at halftime.

“They were going to come out at some point and make a push,” Hardaway said. “All of a sudden, they were digging everything and taking harder swings. You’ve got to be able to stand that, and we just didn’t.”

The Penguins kept their heads about them and defeated KSU, 25-20, in the fourth set to earn their ninth victory.

“I think the amount of seniors and upperclassmen that we have, the experience we have on this team, helps us in tight-game situations,” Watson said. “I think that’s what helped us tonight. We knew not to let up on them.”

During the five-game winning streak, the Penguins have won 15-3 overall heading into conference play. YSU got a taste of Horizon League play on Friday, defeating Cleveland State University, 3-0, at home. They will face new HL member Oakland University on Friday.

Throughout the shaking-off-the-rust stage, Watson started Tuesday night and tied senior Missy Hundelt with a team-high of 12 kills.

Watson has earned a spot back in the lineup, and that makes her teammates around her fight to regain their spots as Watson did during her rehabilitation stage. It makes practice more competitive, which was something lost during some of the early season defeats.

“We really missed that versatility,” Hardaway said. “She was really rusty when she came back, and she’s starting to get back into sync. I think it helps to have another attacker who’s capable of making big runs.

“Another thing we’re stressing is being very competitive in practice and having people on our team that can start for other conference teams is what’s going to help us get to our goal.”