MITCHELL, S.D. – An automatic berth in the NAIA Women’s Volleyball National Championship was on the line when the Mustangs walked into Dakota Wesleyan’s Christen Athletic Center Wednesday, Nov. 6. While the Tigers weren’t tamed easily, they wouldn’t keep Morningside from guaranteeing an extended season courtesy of a 3-1 Mustang win, 25-21, 22-25, 25-18, and 25-20. The Mustangs advance to 16-10 overall and have an even 8-8 GPAC record following the win.
Morningside and Dakota Wesleyan spent the majority of the first set exchanging points as they sized up each others’ defenses, though Morningside scored first and held the edge, fighting off attempts from the Tigers until they pulled even at 11 points each. DWU took the next point, and the teams again began exchanging blows, going point-for-point until 19 all. A Brittni Olson (SR/Sioux City, IA) kill would break the tie, followed by kills from Caitlin Makovicka (JR/Ceresco, NE) and Callie Alberico (SR/Fort Calhoun, NE) to give Morningside a 22-19 lead. The Mustangs would lead the rest of the way, with Emma Gerber (SR/Worthington, MN) punctuating the set with her fourth kill of the night.
Set two opened with an unconventional kill from Ashley Boer (JR/Rock Rapids, IA) that led to a 2-0 Morningside lead early. The Mustangs would stretch to a 4-1 edge before Dakota Wesleyan would rattle off three consecutive points to tie the match. Gerber again found the floor with a kill as the teams began exchanging points again. Much like set one, DWU tied the set at 11, then took the lead and left Morningside to play catch up as it stretched its lead to 19-13. The Mustangs fought back to make the score 19-17, thanks, in part, to a pair of Krista Zenk (JR/Le Mars, IA) kills. Morningside nearly pulled even with DWU at 22-21 but kills by Gerber, and Madison Hartman (SR/Morgan Hill, CA) wasn’t enough to overcome the difference as the Tigers took the set.
“I thought, playing against Dakota Wesleyan, us hitting as well as we did was a pleasant surprise,” described the Mustangs’ head coach, Beth Donnelly. “Dakota Wesleyan is a scrappy team. They keep a lot of balls alive. We had very little upfront blocking until the fourth set, but our defense did a good job behind it.”
After the requisite intermission, Morningside took a quick 4-1 lead off of kills by Hartman, Gerber, Alberico, and a Rylie Muhlbauer (JR/Manning, IA) service ace. A few points were traded before the Mustangs took six-straight points. Not to be outdone, DWU went on a 6-2 run to make the score 13-9. Each team added on to there, with Morningside stretching out to a six-point lead again to make the score 18-12. A Dakota Wesleyan timeout cut the Mustangs lead, as the hosts took the next three to make the score 18-15. Morningside would take it the rest of the way, giving up just three more points as Makovicka ended the set with back-to-back kills.
The home team took control of what would be the final set early, taking their own 4-1 lead out of the gate. Madison Hartman got the Mustangs started again with a kill, as the visitors found a spark and got kills from Alberico, Olson, and Zenk to make the score 5-6. A pair of points for DWU was followed by another kill for Zenk and a Merrin Van Velzen (JR/Sergeant Bluff, IA) ace. A Morningside timeout down 12-8 would allow the Mustangs to regroup and put another point on the board, but it wasn’t until the Mustangs were trailing 19-16 that they would be able to string together eight consecutive points to take a 23-19 lead. An attack error gave the Tigers their last point before Morningside would seal the win on the strength of a Gerber kill and a Tiger attack error.
“Kayla played excellent defense tonight,” started Donnelly. “I think Merrin played phenomenal read defense. She was reading balls that no one else was. She was talking in the back row and calling them out before they were even happening.”
The Mustang defense was led by Kayla Harris (SO/Dakota City, NE) in the back row, shaking off a short slump to the tune of 22 digs in the match. Merrin Van Velzen had 16, Callie Alberico had 14, and Rylie Muhlbauer wrapped up the double-digit efforts with 10.
Krista Zenk had the numbers to beat at the offensive net, with 19 kills on the night. Gerber had 15, and Madison Hartman ended the night with 14 kills. Alberico had the high hitting percentage, terminating five of eight times for a .625 average. Olson followed with a .375 off of seven kills, and Zenk turned in a .357. Alberico turned in 53 assists in the match.
“Callie did an outstanding job running the faster tempo to the pin tonight,” commended Donnelly. “She was up and down with it against Mount Marty, but I think tonight she was doing an excellent job. Madison Hartman came out and swung .700 in set one, and I think that set the tone for the outside.”
The Mustangs have secured a spot in the NAIA National Championship, with pool play commencing on December 3, but first must focus on the GPAC postseason tournament. Their quarterfinal match will pit them against no. 2 seed the University of Jamestown in Jamestown, N.D. on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 4:00 p.m.