At the onset of 2018, Ohio was picked to complete the trifecta.
They were the team to beat.
But with eight matches left in the regular season, none of those achievements appear attainable for Ohio, which looked very beatable through eight matches of MAC play.
The Bobcats are a disappointing 3-5 in MAC matches and own a four-match losing streak, their longest skid of the season. They fell to Ball State — which will likely win the MAC West — 3-1 on Friday and lost in five sets to Toledo, which will likely finish with a sub-.500 record, on Saturday.
Something’s not right, and coach Deane Webb is running out of time to fix it.
“There’s a lot of growing up that needs to take place,” Webb said after Ohio was swept by Bowling Green on Oct. 6. “A lot of making more mature decisions on the way that we prepare to play.”
At this point last season, Ohio was 4-4 in conference matches and was coming off a sweep of Ball State, which still won the MAC West. The Bobcats’ potential was limited because of long-term injuries to three starting players, but they still found a way to win crucial matches.
Now, the Bobcats have no excuses. They’re one match worse than a year ago, yet all of their starting players are healthy. Reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Tia Jimerson missed the first four conference matches with an injury, but Ohio’s deep depth filled the talent gap, and it still went 3-1 to begin conference play.
The Bobcats are 0-4 since Jimerson’s return on Oct. 5 against Miami. They’ve won just five of 17 sets in that span.
So, what’s wrong?
Webb has preached all season that Ohio has to lower its error totals. When the Bobcats aren’t hitting the ball out of bounds, they’ve looked like the team MAC coaches feared when they picked them to sweep 2018’s team achievements.
“(Unforced errors are) just something we always have to be mindful of,” Webb said in September. “It’s just, we always want to go up and rip a ball, but sometimes, the moment doesn’t call for it. Sometimes, we refer to the phrase ‘out of rhythm’ with our hitters. If they’re not in rhythm when they go to swing, they do something else with the ball. Tip a ball, throw a ball, do something.”
In Ohio’s five matches between Sept. 15 and Sept. 29, the team never hit above 20 attacking errors. The Bobcats went 4-1 in that stretch, their best portion of 2018 so far, and hit as low as six attacking errors against Akron in their sweep and last win on Sept. 29.
But every match after that has been the exact opposite. The Bobcats have hit a combined 100 attacking errors, their most in a four-match span this season, and have appeared to crumble under the pressure of playing bigger, more physical teams.
So, it’s plain and simple: If Ohio is going to claw itself back into the MAC East, the attacking errors will have to decrease.
The Bobcats won’t catch a break with their remaining schedule. Just three of their final eight matches are against teams in the bottom half of their division. Ohio will meet Buffalo, Bowling Green and Miami to end the season.
Those final three matches will serve as the perfect test for Ohio. If the Bobcats go 0-3, they likely won’t even make the MAC Tournament, which hasn’t happened since 2001.
If the Bobcats can muster at least two wins in those three, they can hope for a middle-of-the-pack team to begin the tournament and a slightly easier road to attaining the most important of the three awards they were predicted to win: a MAC Tournament title.
But there are still five matches to play before then, and Ohio will have to stop its four-match losing skid before it can think about the future.
If they can’t stop the bleeding, the Bobcats’ final three matches won’t matter.
Their season will already be over.