Soccer hopes to continue its rise to the top

One of the most difficult jobs for a coach is finding the right amount of youth for your roster. The Missouri Western soccer team will have plenty of youth taking the field this fall. With only three seniors on this year's team, coach Chad Edwards hopes that those senior's experience is enough. "We have seniors with lots of experience and they understand what it takes to be successful," Edwards said. One of those seniors, Cassidy Chappell believes the toughest part is learning how to play as a team. "We've been working on learning how each player plays and how to get better at attacking," Chappell said. The Griffons finished last season with a 9-8-1 record--the best record in program history. Western added nine new players to this year's roster and they want those players to continue to help the program succeed. "We've talked to the players about not having the new players have that feeling of heartbreak," Edwards said. Last season's leading scorer returns for her junior season. Forward Bridget Blessie led the team with five goals last season, starting all 18 games for the Griffons. "She's a great kid, works so hard," Edwards said. "That's what I appreciate about her, I know what I am going to get out of her every day." Defense has been the strength of the program the last few years--yielding 0.80 goals per game last season. It is the Western offense that has struggled in previous seasons. The offense averaged just 0.94 goals per game in 2015. It will be up to players like Blessie to improve in that area in order for the Griffons to compete for an MIAA championship. "We just have to have the mentality to score, to finish," Blessie said. "We want to beat teams 3-0 and to be known as an attacking team, not just a defensive team." The Griffons will also be tasked with replacing their All-MIAA goalkeeper, Sarah Lyle. Lyle had to leave the team for personal reasons. Taking her place will be either Lexie Martin or Paige LaBadie. "Lexie has really stepped up and Paige is still getting use to how we do things here," Edwards said. "I have confidence in whoever starts for us next Friday." The Griffons start their season in Arkadelphia, Ark. at the MIAA/GAC Challenge. The team knows that they must perform better on the road this season. Western was 6-2 at home, but just 3-6-1 when not playing in the friendly confines of Spratt Stadium in 2015. "We talk about being really good Sunday players and when you're on the road you're in the hotel and you may not be as focused in your training session on Saturday," Edwards said. Missouri Western was picked to be fifth in the preseason MIAA Coaches Poll. They will start their conference schedule against two teams who were picked to finish in the bottom of the conference before facing off against last season's conference champion, Central Missouri. In the eyes of Blessie, this Western team is just as talented as the team from Warrensburg. "I think maybe they are more patient on the ball, but I believe we play with more heart and toughness," Blessie said. The team knows where they want to be at the end of the season--and they know who they must beat and what it will take to finish at the top of the MIAA. "There is always that team that you want to reach, that you want to beat," Blessie said. "And that is our goal, to beat UCM and to be like them and with our talent and heart. I think we can be." The Griffon's first match will be against Harding University on Sept. 2 and their first home game will be Tuesday Sept. 6 against Bemidji State University.  

Western volleyball looks to spike their way to top of MIAA

Head coach Marian Carbin is entering her fourth season as the Missouri Western volleyball coach. The Griffons have improved each season since she took over the program and they hope to continue that streak this season. “I think it gets harder and harder every year,” Carbin said. “But every coach's goal is to win championships and until you do that, there is always room to improve.” Western finished the 2015 season with a 21-10 record, going 12-6 in the MIAA. Experience will not be an issue for Western, as the Griffons bring will be led by five juniors and four seniors. They also add three newcomers who should see plenty of action this fall. “We have a healthy mix of both, and the key is that the veterans take a leadership role and the new girls be the talented players that they are,” Carbin said. Outside hitter Blair Russell returns for her senior season after starting 12 matches for the Griffons last year. Russell finished the season with more than 200 kills. Senior Kelsey Olion hopes to bounce back from a knee injury she suffered at the end of the 2014 season. Olion earned All-MIAA Honorable Mention in 2014, accumulating more than 250 kills, but only accounted for 11 digs and four kills. “I’ve been doing lots of rehab, trying to get my vertical back up,” Olion said. “I think it’s going well and I’m excited to have a good senior season.” Leading the junior class is Amanda Delbey. Delbey is a two-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll athlete and last season appeared in all 31 matches for the Griffons. Delbey started 24 of those matches and ended the season with 267 digs. Filling the middle will be Texan Ashley Mainord. Mainord played in 21 matches for Western last season, starting five. The junior finished last season with 89 kills and 17 blocks. She is not the only middle to stand out over the off-season. Rachel Friedrichs and Rachel Losch both had impressive off-seasons for the Griffons. “All three had outstanding off-season,” Carbin said. “By the end of spring they were all touching 9’9” or higher. We haven’t had that in four years.” The coaching staff believes that their middles and defense will be the strength of the team this fall. “Our middle, as well as our defense will be a definite strength,” Carbin said. “It was a strength last year, and you add in all the experience that our middles have.” With Western having so much youth and the many new faces, the team felt like one of the biggest things they needed to work on was their chemistry on the court. “We’ve been working with our freshman middles and outsides, connecting with them and making sure we are all on the same page,” Mainord said. The Griffons will need solid play when they open the season with the Washburn Invitational on Sept. 2 and 3. Western will play the University of Mary, Drury University, Quincy University and Midwestern State University. “I think the important thing for us is that three of the four matches are regional matches and so a win against Mary [University] could be big at the end of the season,” Carbin said. “Those first three games of the year could be just as important as the conference tournament.” Missouri Western started last season 0-2 before rebounding and winning their next 10 matches. Starting 0-2 this year could mean big trouble for Carbin and the Griffons. “A loss to Mary could be really rough because they’re in our region,” Carbin said. Expectations are high for Missouri Western this year. The program has come a long way in just a few years. “When I first got here we were 16-14 and we were excited because it was our first winning season in a long time,” Olion said. “But it’s all the hard work that no one sees, that is how we continue to improve every year.”

Griffons led by a new cast of characters in 2016

The Missouri Western football team has not had a losing season in 11 years—but they also have not made the playoffs in four years. The Griffons finished last season with a 6-5 record and saw all five losses come by two scores or less. Head coach Jerry Partridge acknowledged that if a few plays had gone the other way, his team would have been right there in the mix for the playoffs. “The Pitt game, we just need one more play, and that is both sides of the ball,” Partridge said. “Same at Central Missouri, same for all five losses.” The Griffons relied heavily on their very talented defense for the 2015 season, but Partridge and his staff will have to find a way to replace their leading tackler and star cornerback Michael Jordan. “We lost four seniors on our defensive line and that is my biggest concern,” Partridge said. The young defensive line should get help from a talented secondary. “There is a lot of talent, but a lot of youth,” Partridge said. “Donte Watkins and Jonathan Owen are really, really good football players.” Both players were in the top five in total tackles on the team in 2015 and Owen finished second on the team with four interceptions. “We’re going to be pretty young at the corner spots, but we’re trying to teach them what we learned from Mike Jordan and Brown,” Owen said. Redshirt junior Cody Lindsay returns at linebacker for the Griffons. Lindsay led the team last season with seven and a half sacks. Lindsay hopes that the front seven can add enough pressure to help the young secondary. “We gotta help with a good pass rush, try and keep it aggressive, force a bad ball and help the back end of the defense,” Cody said. Leading the Missouri Western offense this season is quarterback Skyler Windmiller. Windmiller led the Griffons with nine touchdown passes last season and passed for 1,701 yards. Coach Partridge has seen a lot of improvement from his young quarterback. “His play over the offseason has really improved,” Partridge said. “It has just been hard for him to gain momentum over the last few seasons because of injuries.” Western will have to replace Raphael Spencer in the backfield—2015’s leading rusher. The team will not have to look far for his replacement, though. Partridge and his staff believe they have one of the most talented running backs in the conference in Josh Caldwell. “If we had given Josh the same amount of carries as Raphael, he would have given us the same amount of production,” Partridge said. “He’s as good a back as you’ll find in the conference.” Caldwell was second on the team in rushing last season, rushing for 660 yards and averaging six yards per carry. “You know losing Raphael would hurt any other team, but the guys we got behind him are just as good,” Windmiller said. The coaching staff has also seen a lot of good things out of running back Kendall Short. “Kendall is physically impressive, a slasher kinda guy and can be equally as talented,” Partridge said. The thinnest position on offense for the Griffons is the wide receiver position. With a lack of experience, Western will rely a lot on underclassmen and junior college transfers. The Griffons lost five of their six leading receivers from a year ago. Returning from that group is wide receiver DiJuan Ussery. Ussery had 23 receptions for 402 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. “We just want DiJuan to get better,” Partridge said. “There’s a good chance when he comes out onto the field he has more speed than anyone out there.” Windmiller is confident in the skill players starting this season. “We get out there and doesn’t matter who is out there, we’re doing the same thing year-in and year-out,” Windmiller said. The offensive line for Western will return three of the five starters from a year ago. The coaching staff has high praise for the three returning players—especially two-time All-MIAA lineman Travis Anderson. “What you want to happen with the offensive line happened,” Partridge said. “You sign high school kids and you hope they develop.” The Griffons could not ask for an easier start to the 2016 campaign. Their first two opponents combined for one win in 2015. After those two games Western will host Central Missouri and then travel to Central Oklahoma to face a team who had just seven wins a year ago. Some coaches may feel some added pressure, but after 19 seasons as the head coach at Missouri Western, Partridge says that the pressure he feels most—is the pressure he puts on himself. “I put the pressure on myself, I cannot stand to lose,” Partridge said. “The passion of my hatred for losing is far greater than the joy I get from winning.”

Updated Spratt Stadium opens doors

Summer has come and gone, we’re closing in on the cool, crisp weather of fall. This is no ordinary fall around the Missouri Western campus. No, this fall fans and students will get to enjoy a brand new experience at Spratt Stadium. The new Spratt Stadium will include 200 additional Gold Coat Club Seats, 14 corporate suites, a Hall of Fame room and much more. Oh, and also the biggest video board in Division II. The video board is almost 78-foot tall, with a 2,500 square foot display. “It’s bigger than probably my house,” Athletic Director Kirk McGuffin said. The biggest and brightest part of the $2.8 million project arrived at the Missouri Western campus on June 9. It took 10 flatbed trailers three days to bring the video board 1,600 miles from Corona California. The school received a lot of help in paying for the board from Steve Craig. Craig, founder and CEO of Craig Realty Group, donated $1.1 million for the project. This brings the total to $8.9 million that he has donated to Missouri Western. This was no spur of the moment project for Craig, as him and his team spent five and a half years designing the video board. “It was a big project, and frankly I wasn’t willing to compromise it and make it a miniature scoreboard like they did at Northwest,” Craig said. The video board is not just the biggest in Division II athletics—it is also bigger than the boards at the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. Missouri Western President Robert Vartabedian did not shy away from boasting about Western’s newest attraction. “There just aren’t many opportunities where you can boast that you have the biggest and best phenomenon on your campus,” Vartabedian said. The renovations will provide Western with many new opportunities. Vartabedian hopes that they may host marching band competitions and much, much more.

Blessie keeps on kickin’

Known mostly as the home of one of the wealthiest men in the world, for a zoo and as the the center of the college baseball world each year, Omaha is home to many great attractions and also to a 21-year old girl who spends each fall tormenting MIAA opponents on the soccer field. Redshirt junior Bridget Blessie grew up just outside of Omaha, Neb. Blessie grew up competing with two older brothers. “I was always trying to keep up with them, whether it was shooting hoops or playing in the streets,” Blessie said. Bridget’s desire to compete started at the age of four, spending afternoons playing sports with the neighborhood kids. Blessie was the only girl on her street, but she learned young that no one, parents included, would give her any sympathy. “I would go complain to my parents, but they would just tell me I needed to be better than my brothers,” Blessie said. Bridget began her soccer career at the age of four, playing in a co-ed league. “I was an energetic child, I was unable to ever sit still,” Blessie said. “I tried volleyball, but there just wasn’t enough running.” Soccer was a perfect fit for the young girl from southeast Nebraska. Though she enjoyed soccer as a kid, her love for the game began the first time she watched the World Cup. “I was watching it and realized—this isn’t just a neighborhood game…this is huge,” Blessie said. Her talent and competitive side led her to the Elite Girls Academy. Youth soccer took a huge jump in the 1990’s, going from 1.6 million kids to three million in 2000. The overall number of kids has stayed about the same, but the boy-girl ratio has changed over the last 10 years. The ratio now is almost 50/50. “I think a lot of it is the talent is growing,” Blessie said. “The seventh and eighth grade kids are much more talented now, compared to when I was growing up.” Youth academies like the one Blessie played in allows kids the opportunity to get the best training and the chance to travel the country to participate in tournaments. “My favorite part was getting to travel to San Diego for a tournament,” Blessie said. The overall talent that is assembled in the EGA gives athletes the competition needed to bring out the best in them. “Every girl that was on my EGA team was a college commit,” Blessie said. “I have one friend who went to Penn State and actually won a national title.” There are numerous girls that Bridget played with during her time with the EGA that went on to play at schools such as North Carolina, Miami and Marquette. “They really know how to develop you and they know how to prepare you for college,” Blessie said. One of Blessie’s biggest rivals has not always been the opponent on the other side of the field—but staying healthy. She had an offer from a Division I school before hurting her knee in the San Diego tournament. “They told me they would re-evaluate me and I was getting strong again and then I hurt my knee again in high school,” Blessie said. “I ended up having two surgeries while in school.” Bridget was born with slanted knees and so she was at a disadvantage from the beginning. It tested her work ethic, her drive and it would have been very easy for her to move on from that chapter of her life. Coaches, family and teammates did not allow her to quit. “I didn’t give up—and I have so many people to thank for that,” Blessie said. Bridget has excelled in almost every aspect since moving to St. Joseph. She has been named to the MIAA Academic Honor Roll the last two seasons and was First Team All-MIAA on the field last season. “They say that you’re only as strong as your weakest link and so I push myself to not ever be the worst player on the field,” Blessie said. There are very few things as important as winning to Bridget, and she proved that last season by setting a school record with four game-winning goals. “I hate the feeling of losing more than I enjoy the feeling of winning,” Blessie said. This season starts a new chapter for the redshirt junior who is always looking to improve. She struggled once again with knee pain during the 2015 season, and once again was forced to go through surgery to clean up her knee. The hardest part of the off-season was not being able to practice with her teammates. “I would stand on the sidelines and beg the coaches to go in, I didn’t care if I went in as the goalkeeper,” Blessie said. Bridget spent the off-season working on getting herself into playing condition. She has no desire to sit on the sidelines anymore and feeling like she was letting her team down by not being out there. The Griffons will need their leading scorer from the last year if they are to have any chance at competing for championships—but working hard is not an issue when it comes to Blessie. “I have been working hard to become a better shooter, to get more shots on goal,” Blessie said. Missouri Western has seen dramatic improvement from most of their teams. Soccer has had two of its best seasons the last two years, softball has been solid, and women’s basketball recently celebrated an MIAA championship. The success of other athletes does not go unnoticed, and the need to be just as or more successful than other sports is a common thing on Western’s campus. “We support each other, but you also don’t want to be the worst sports team on campus,” Blessie said. After her career of taking care of business on the soccer field, Bridget hopes to move on to a business career. Majoring in marketing and finance, the soccer star hopes to one day work for a sports franchise like the Chiefs or even pursue a career with the FBI. “But who knows, I have even given some thought into going to law school,” Blessie said. Though she excels on the field, Bridget is like any other college student. She works a part-time job making coffee in the hospital and likes to binge-watch Netflix shows late at night. But it is her work on the field that she wants to be remembered for. “I want to be like Mike Hill, even though I didn’t go to school with him, but I know who he is,” Blessie said.