Southwestern setter Abby Ralston whispers a strategy tip in the ear of senior middle blocker Madison Coles during Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Milan in Hanover. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Southwestern setter Abby Ralston whispers a strategy tip in the ear of senior middle blocker Madison Coles during Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Milan in Hanover. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Southwestern volleyball started the season 3-0 but the team head coach Chris Johnson fielded then barely resembles the squad that lost 3-0 to Milan on Tuesday night in Hanover.

Since that hot start, the Rebels have lost 11 of their next 14 matches to now stand 6-11 on the season. Johnson said a team that early on brimmed with confidence and swagger now looks scared on the court — scared of itself.

“Whatever that was at the beginning of the year, it’s gone,” Johnson said after the Rebels lost 27-25, 25-19, 25-23 to the Indians at King Gymnasium. “And that’s going to kind of be the challenge — to try to recover that ... I’ve been doing this for 16 years and this is definitely something I’m not entirely used to.”

The Rebels’ 3-0 loss to Milan is somewhat deceptive in that all three sets were close and but for a handful of points Southwestern could have flipped the outcome against their Ohio River Valley Conference rivals.

But Southwestern made just enough mistakes to keep Milan in each of the three sets and then made a few more than enough to see to it that the Indians picked up the close wins. For Johnson, it’s an all to familiar scenario of late. It’s happened in most of Southwestern’s 11 losses and Johnson thinks it’s the root cause of the Rebels’ fear.

“Honestly, what I saw on the court tonight was I felt like we were playing a scared,” said Johnson, noting his team is afraid of itself. “I think we’ve lost several games here and I think as soon as stuff starts to go south in a match we automatically start to think we’re going to lose.

“We’re scared of ourselves right now,” Johnson added. “I don’t think it has anything to do with who we play because I’ve seen it time and time again no matter who’s on the other side of the court. As soon as things start going downhill we shut down — not necessarily play-wise but we shut down emotionally — and then we’re not invested in our play anymore and that just makes for more mistakes and mental errors and communication problems. We had a lot of communication problems tonight.”

The Rebels actually led the first set 19-16 before Milan tied it 19-19. Southwestern then either led or was tied until an error made it 24-23 Milan. The set was then tied 24-24 and Southwestern actually served for set point at 25-24 before another error tied it 25-25 and Milan closed the win out 27-25 on a kill by Kassidy Boyce followed by another Southwestern error.

The Rebels battled back from a 19-9 deficit in set two to trail 20-14 before Milan closed out that win 25-19 and Southwestern led 5-3 early into set three and trailed just 19-18 late and was tied at 22-22 before Milan closed out the match 25-22.

“We’ve got 11 losses and if you look at 11 we’ve been in almost every single one of them,” Johnson said. “We’ve been right there but we’re beating ourselves and that’s frustrating.”

Johnson said the Rebels have time to fix their problems and they can once again be the team that blew through teams early on to the 3-0 start. But it’s going to take more metal toughness and more leadership.

“We had a long talk in the locker room just about understanding that we need to be able to bounce back quicker from things and understanding that that takes being mentally tough. And we’re not. We’re not right now,” Johnson said. “I really thought at the beginning of this season that I had a pretty strong team and I was wrong. We’re not and we’re not real mentally tough and that’s something that’s hard to work on as a coach but we’re going to have to figure it out and I think we’re going to have to work on that.”

Johnson said he’s got one great senior leader on the team in middle blocker Madison Coles but she’s going to need help from the others if they are to make this turnaround.

“Madison is working her tail off. She has been our statistical leader by far. We just lean on her probably way too much,” Johnson said. “I think honestly Madison was frustrated tonight. She was frustrated because she has felt like she’s putting everything on her back and she’s been able to pull it off a few times.

“But we’ve been talking about that at practice. We need to get her some help. We need to get her some other people who are scoring and some other people who are leading and some other people who are doing that stuff,” Johnson added. “I think Kia Means is coming along. She’s played well and played well in this last tournament we had over the weekend. I think she played well tonight. I think she’s coming around and Abby Ralston our setter is working her tail off trying to do everything she can so I think we’re starting to get some more people on board but we’ve got a way to go before we get there.”

The Rebels host Shawe Memorial on Friday night.