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Kearney, Neb. – The seventh-ranked Nebraska-Kearney volleyball team got 14 kills from three different players and pulled off a huge rally in the third set to beat Missouri Western State (-20, 24-26, -27, -21) in the MIAA Tournament finals Saturday night at the Health & Sports Center.
The Lopers (33-3) go unbeaten at home for a third straight fall, winning 55 in a row on the Buckle Court. That is tied for the eighth longest home court streak in Division II history; UNK won 66 in a row from 2002-2005 and that streak is tied for third best.
Missouri Western, regular season co-champs with Kearney, sees a 13-match win streak come to an end. The Griffons fall to 24-10 and are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
To win this event for a third time (2016 and 2012), the Lopers got 14 kills from senior middle Tara Ziegelbein (Lincoln Lutheran), junior outside Kendall Schroer (Ogallala) and freshman right side Anna Squiers (Kearney Catholic). Off the bench, senior outside Kaitlynn Thomas (Yutan) provided a big lift, finishing with six kills and a block in two sets.
“I don’t think we win without Kaitlynn. Julianne (Jackson) had a tough matchup with their right side. We still needed her to pass but when the situation came around and we needed a spark, Kaitlynn comes in and suddenly we’re getting kills in a position we weren’t earlier. That was huge for us,” said Loper head coach Rick Squiers.
UNK closed the first set on a 5-0 run, sparked by two aces from junior Morgan Stute (Kearney Catholic) and a kill from Squiers. The Lopers were then up 24-21 in the second set and forced
In a match with 33 ties and 17 lead changes, Missouri Western kept the momentum as they jetted out to a 7-1 lead in the third set. UNK came back to tie things at 13, only to see the deficit go back to five at 23-18.
Like the end of the second set, it was time for an unlikely comeback. The Lopers went on a 7-1 run and fought off set point thanks to an unforced attack error and then reached set point thanks to a block by Ziegelbein and junior setter Lindsey Smith (Dakota Dunes, S.D.).
The two squads traded points before UNK closed things out on the strength of a Griff attack error and freshman middle Madison Stearnes only kill of the match.
“I think what we were looking for tonight was steadiness. When we could get into a mode where we were doing something consistently, good things were typically happening. That was hard to do because it was game of runs. We’d get stuck in a rotation and then have to claw our way back in or get a lead and then give it right back,” said Squiers. “Weird match but maybe the kind of one that we’re good at; crazy, wild and scrappy. I couldn’t be prouder of this group for how they competed.”
The drama wasn’t over as Mo West erased a 7-2 fourth deficit to tie things up at 14. However, Kearney closed on an 11-7 run with Ziegelbein and Thomas fittingly ended things with back-to-back-kills.
“That was a very sweet victory. On paper, this team has done pretty much what we did last year but it was way harder this year. Doing it without the National Player of the Year and doing it with the expectation of doing it again. It was all that much more difficult,” said Squiers.
Both teams had nine blocks and 54 kills with UNK managing five more digs, 77-72, and were plus six in the serve game. The Lopers also hit 53 points higher. Individually, Squiers tied her season-high in kills by hitting a match-high .462 with Ziegelbein having a team-best five blocks besides her offensive output. Running the show, Smith ended with 46 assists, nine digs, two aces, two kills and a block assist. Mo West was led by Shelby Taylor (14 kills and four blocks), Erin Erb (16 kills and .250 pct.) and libero Kayla Ruff (26 digs and two aces).
UNK will likely be the third seed in the NCAA Central Regional. That tournament will be held in either St. Paul or Marshall, Minn., during the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 3. The top two seeds in the Central, Concordia-St. Paul and Southwest Minnesota State, play in the NSIC (Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference) Tourney finals tomorrow with the winner likely hosting the regional. The NCAA Tournament selection show airs Monday night at 6:30 p.m. Central.