For the next two weeks, the Northwestern State volleyball team will learn how the other half lives.
After playing its first 12 Southland Conference matches in the span of five weeks, NSU slows it down in the final three weeks of the regular season, playing four matches in that time.
The first in that span comes Thursday night at 7 when NSU travels to Central Arkansas in its only match of the week. After playing 12 matches in 31 days, Northwestern State will play just two in the next nine days.
“We have a lot of time to prepare that we haven’t had leading up to this,” first-year head coach Sean Kiracofe said. “We had the vast majority of our matches on the front end of the conference season, so we have only a few matches left where everyone else has a lot left. It will give us some time to prepare for a couple of individual matches.”
Northwestern State (6-19, 4-8) has played three quarters of its 16-match conference schedule while Central Arkansas (12-10, 8-2) is one of six conference teams who have played 10 matches.
Stephen F. Austin has played 11 matches while McNeese State, Southeastern Louisiana, Lamar and New Orleans have yet to play more than nine conference matches.
As it stands, the race for Southland Conference Tournament positioning is jumbled with two games separating five teams battling for the final four spots in the tournament.
To make a move toward the tournament, Northwestern State first has to dispatch the Sugar Bears in a rematch of last season’s Southland Conference Tournament championship game.
Northwestern State won that in a 3-0 sweep – its second sweep of Central Arkansas in 2014. Both of those matches took place in Prather Coliseum.
Additionally, both teams looked much different than they do today.
“They have a new coach as well,” Kiracofe said. “They had a feeling-out period at the beginning of the year and struggled a little bit. They’re firing on all cylinders now. I know (NSU) beat them twice last year, but it’s a different team with a different staff and some people leaving the roster. It’s a completely different look, but I think we’ll be able to match up in a few ways that will be beneficial to us.”
The similarities don’t end with new coaching staffs in both Conway and Natchitoches.
Thursday’s match features the top two statistical servers in the conference. UCA’s Heather Schnars leads the conference in aces per set (0.62) while Northwestern State’s Natalie Jaeger ranks second in that category (0.49).
Schnars leads the conference in kills per set (4.16) while Northwestern State’s Glynna Johnson is tied for sixth among active Division I players in career blocks (469).
“She reads the attackers well,” Kiracofe said of Johnson. “She’s big and she takes up a lot of space, but she’s smart enough to use that. She’s not there just to take up space. She does a fantastic job and is consistent. She puts herself in position to get those blocks. To be able to pile up all those numbers is really fantastic.”
Following Thursday’s match, Northwestern State enjoys its longest break of the year, going nine days between matches. NSU resumes play Nov. 7 at Stephen F. Austin.