Try to think of the last time Wichita State lost in a big volleyball upset to a Missouri Valley Conference school during the regular season.
One might make a case it's never happened. Since 2004, when WSU won its first MVC title, the Shockers haven't lost to a team that finished below .500 in the conference. Before that, WSU never finished higher than third in 21 seasons of conference play.
The Shockers, for most of the past decade, don't lose to the bottom of the MVC. On that consistency is built their streak of seven seasons finishing first or second in the MVC.
This weekend, WSU (11-6, 5-2 MVC) travels to Evansville (11-11, 1-6) Friday and Southern Illinois (9-7, 3-4) on Saturday for matches it should win. Its win streak against Evansville is at 19, beginning in 2001. Southern Illinois dropped 18 straight to WSU after a 2002 win.
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Then there is Drake (22 straight losses to WSU, starting in 2000), Bradley (17, 2003) and Indiana State (18, 2002). While those schools generally finish near the bottom of the MVC, they aren't totally toothless. Evansville, for example, has beaten Northern Iowa, Missouri State and Creighton since 2008.
For Chris Lamb, WSU coach since 2000, those numbers affirm his philosophy of practicing to be an efficient, error-free team. In 23 conference sets, the Shockers total 77 hitting errors, 51 fewer than Northern Iowa in 24 sets. The Shockers lead the MVC in hitting percentage in conference matches (.321) and all matches (.262).
"When you train a team for error-rate rather than success-rate, you're basically opting to go for playing clean rather than reckless," Lamb said. "You're learning to play very efficient, which should keep you more poised to beat lesser teams."
On a risk-reward scale, Lamb wants his players to represent less risk, even if the rewards aren't as great at times. He prefers an outside hitter with fewer kills and fewer errors to one with more kills and more errors.
In baseball terms, think of it as a team that doesn't strike out and emphasizes putting the ball in play as opposed to a team of free-swingers who depend on the three-run homer.
That approach, in Lamb's mind, also helps practices by prolonging rallies to give everyone more work. Instead of stopping play when a shot zooms out of bounds, the Shockers get countless more chances to pass, set and block.
"And it will still help you beat a better team on a night when that better team doesn't play well, because you're efficient," he said. "This philosophy keeps you from losing to lesser teams and, I also claim, might help you win on the road when you're kind of vulnerable because you're just solid."
The Shockers don't give away many points and don't open the door for the underdog to steal a set or two and grab the momentum. The Shockers have won 94 straight matches against those five schools. Four lasted five sets.
"We're not going to beat ourselves," Lamb said.
Despite that overwhelming success, players say Lamb doesn't let the Shockers overlook those opponents. The matches, he reminds them, count in the MVC race and for NCAA Tournament at-large resumes.
"We need every win," junior defensive specialist Jackie Church said. "If we lost one to one of these teams, it would be devastating to our RPI."
The Shockers also play each season knowing there is little room for error at the top of the MVC standings. The conference champ went unbeaten the past three years. Behind the leader, the scramble for seeding in the conference tournament is usually close.
"One loss to those teams that you're not supposed to lose to can ruin your whole season," senior libero Sarah Waldorf said. "We always talk about how we should beat them, but we can't overlook them because they're going to be wanting to beat us that much worse."