DENVER – University of Nebraska at Kearney was overwhelmed early in its match against seventh-seeded Gannon University in the Elite Eight on Thursday afternoon.
The Golden Knights served aggressively and capitalized on suspect Loper ball control to prevail in the first set. The second-seeded Lopers battled those same issues, as well as a lack of block touches, in the second.
But a tight second-set victory propelled the Lopers over the final two sets, as they kept their season alive with a 19-25, 25-22, 25-17, 25-15 victory over the Golden Knights in front of 437 fans at Metro State University’s Auraria Event Center in Denver.
“A very hard-fought match,” UNK coach Rick Squiers said. “Gannon was a fantastic opponent. … They came out right after us and had us on our heels for a good chunk of that match.
“Credit our girls for just hanging in there, even though things were a struggle for a good part of the time. Just fought our way into a bit of a rhythm eventually and then were able to get a little better control of things.”
The victory pushes the Lopers (37-0) into the Final Four where they’ll play third-seeded Rockhurst (33-7) at 6 p.m. Friday in Denver. Rockhurst, who’s ranked 19th in the top 25 poll, defeated sixth-seeded Carson-Newman (Tenn.) in straight sets Thursday.
In the regular season, the second-ranked Lopers beat Rockhurst in four competitive sets at the Health and Sports Center. Rockhurst’s offense is hitting .269 this season and is led by Karli Reichert and Alyssa Woodman, who are both averaging over three kills per set.
“There’s a reason they are at this point. They’re an outstanding team,” Rick Squiers said. “They don’t have a glaring weakness, well coached, good setter, and it’ll be a great volleyball match. We will have to play extremely well in all phases.”
The Lopers were “a little tight” in the early stages of their match against Gannon (30-7), Rick Squiers said. The Golden Knights played loose and aggressively, hitting .366 and tallying five service aces in the first set.
The Lopers’ defensive struggles led to the Golden Knights notching 18 kills in the set with senior outside hitter Ally Smith recording seven kills on 10 swings.
The Lopers responded by storming out to a 12-4 lead in the second set. The Golden Knights cut the lead to 15-13 on a kill by Smith, but the Lopers won four straight points to gain a slight cushion.
The Golden Knights answered later in the set. They won five of six points to force Rick Squiers to call a timeout with the Lopers ahead 24-22.
A Golden Knight hitting error clinched the set for the Lopers, 25-22. The Lopers experienced better offensive results in the set, increasing their hitting percentage by 52 points to a .294 mark while the Golden Knights took a drastic step back, hitting .220.
“I think it took us awhile to get into a rhythm to figure out where we wanted to set up on blocking, and we struggled with ball control,” senior outside hitter Julianne Jackson said. “That’s really a mental game and once you get down on that, it can really effect the rest of the game.”
Although the Lopers didn’t have the same offensive success in the third, they thrived at blocking the Golden Knight attackers. Their success at the net allowed them to break a 14-14 tie and close the set on an 11-3 run. The third set featured five lead changes and 11 ties.
The Lopers notched six team blocks in the set with senior middle blocker Josie Cox and redshirt freshman Sami Mauch sparking the Lopers in that category, as they each came off the bench and tallied two blocks. Maddie Squiers had three blocks and Anna Squiers added two in the set.
After both teams went back and forth early in the fourth set, the Lopers rallied. They grew a three-point lead via an 11-4 run to ease to a 25-15 fourth-set victory. The Lopers hit an impressive .343 in the set compared to the Golden Knights’ .083.
The Lopers finished the match with a .261 hitting percentage and 14 team blocks. Jackson posted a team-high 13 kills, while junior right side hitter MK Wolfe recorded 12 kills, 20 digs and four blocks and Anna Squiers added 10 kills and five blocks.
“Those block touches are extremely important because (the Golden Knights) were just like bombs away,” Anna Squiers said. “But once we were able to shut them down, they lost a little confidence.”
UNK 3, Gannon 1
Scores by Set
Gannon (30-7) 25 22 17 15 – 1
UNK (37-0) 19 25 25 25 – 3
KILLS – GU: Maggie Greenfield 11, Ashley McClung 14, Ashley Beyers 2, Lauren Sampson 3, Ally Smith 19, Johanna Gregory 1, Ashley Kerestes 6. UNK: Kamryn Schuler 3, Maddie Squiers 2, Anna Squiers 10, Josie Cox 3, Julianne Jackson 13, Mackenzie Puckett 1, Sami Mauch 4, MK Wolfe 12.
ASSISTS – GU: Ashley McClung 1, Ashley Beyers 43, Lauren Sampson 1, Kenzie Lasher 1, Ally Smith 1, Toni Leitshuh 4. UNK: Lindsay Nottlemann 2, Maddie Squiers 40, Anna Squiers 2, Sami Mauch 1, MK Wolfe 1.
ACES – GU: Ashley Beyers 1, Lauren Sampson 5, Kenzie Lasher 1. UNK: Lindsay Nottlemann 1, Anna Squiers 1, MK Wolfe 1.
DIGS – Ashley McClung 2, Ashley Beyers 8, Lauren Sampson 8, Kenzie Lasher 9, Ally Smith 13, Toni Leitshuh 23, Valeria Torres 2, Ashley Kerestes 1. UNK: Lindsay Nottlemann 12, Maddie Squiers 12, Anna Squiers 3, Emma Benton 3, Julianne Jackson 13, Sami Mauch 9, Mo Schafer 9, MK Wolfe 4.
BLOCKS – GU: Maggie Greenfield 2, Ashley Beyers 1, Lauren Sampson 1, Ally Smith 1. UNK: Maddie Squiers 5, Anna Squiers 5, Josie Cox 5, Mackenzie Puckett 1, Julianne Jackson 3, Sami Mauch 2, MK Wolfe 4.