DENVER – University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball is returning to the Division II NCAA Tournament championship match for the first time since 2005.
On Friday night, the second-seeded Lopers held third-seeded Rockhurst University (Mo.), who has the sixth-most efficient attack in Division II, to just a .140 hitting percentage.
The strong defensive play at the net and in the backrow allowed the Lopers to claim a tight 25-23, 24-26, 25-22, 25-19 victory over the Hawks in a Final Four match at Metropolitan State University’s Auraria Event Center in Denver.
“It was one of those kind of matches where we found a way to get kills, even though sometimes it took a few swings,” UNK coach Rick Squiers said. “We played really good defense. I thought we controlled the ball a little better today than we did yesterday and just put enough pressure on them from the service line to kind of eliminate some options. I thought we had a pretty good blocking performance.”
The Lopers (38-0) advance to the national championship game for just the second time in the program’s history. They will meet top-seeded and undefeated Cal State San Bernardino (32-0) at 6 p.m. today (Saturday) in Denver.
Cal State San Bernardino defeated Regis University (Colo.) in four sets Friday. The Coyotes have a potent offense that leads Division II in hitting percentage, boasting a .314 mark entering their Final Four match.
It marks the third straight weekend the Lopers have played three matches in a three-day span. The Lopers, who’ve qualified for the tournament in each of the last 21 seasons, last appeared in the title match in 2005 when they lost to Grand Valley State in four sets at the Health and Sports Center.
“All the effort we’ve put in all season and just seeing that it’s paying off and seeing how well it’s paying off,” junior right side hitter MK Wolfe said. “This has been one of our goals since I’ve been at UNK, so to actually get here is amazing.”
Friday’s match marked the second time this season the Lopers and Hawks (33-8) squared off. The second meeting between the two squads was similar to the first with both team’s possessing stingy defenses and forcing their opponent to earn every kill.
In the Sept. 14 contest in Kearney, the Lopers prevailed in four competitive sets with junior outside hitter MK Wolfe and senior outside hitter Julianne Jackson leading the Loper attack with 18 and 16 kills, respectively.
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Jackson had another strong performance, finishing with a match-high 20 kills. But it was the emergence of junior middle blocker Anna Squiers that carried the Lopers on Friday.
Anna Squiers posted a career-high 19 kills for an impressive .375 hitting percentage. She also added six blocks, four digs and one ace serve.
“Early on she was hot, so I just kept feeding her the ball,” junior setter Maddie Squiers said. “She kind of only had one block, especially out of the middle. I just kept giving it to her, and she just kept executing it really well.”
In the first set, the Lopers let a five-point lead slip away. With the match tied at 23-all, the Lopers escaped with a 25-23 first-set victory after a Hawk hitting error and a block by senior middle blocker Josie Cox and Maddie Squiers.
After playing catch up most of the second set, the Lopers had a chance to sneak away with a victory. The set was tied at 23-23 and it appeared the Lopers had moved one point ahead, but a challenge by Rockhurst coach Tracy Rietzke flipped the score.
The officials found after the replay that Wolfe did not have her hand under the ball before it touched the court, giving Hawks setter Dani Prusha the kill and the Hawks a 24-23 lead.
The Lopers tied the match at 24-24 on a net violation. But a Loper net violation and attack error allowed the Hawks to win the set, 26-24.
The Lopers held a five-point cushion, 20-15, in the third. The Hawks managed to cut the Loper lead to 23-22 after winning five of six points. Jackson tallied a kill and a block by Cox and Maddie Squiers allowed the Lopers to gain a one-set lead in the match.
The one-set advantage gave the Lopers confidence and flustered the Hawks. The fourth set was tied at 5-5 but a 9-1 scoring spurt gave the Lopers a sizeable lead and allowed them to coast to a fourth-set victory.
The Lopers finished the match with 14 team blocks.
“I think when you’re up 2-1 it gives you a little pep in your step,” Rick Squiers said. “And I just think it’s just an indication of the toughness, drive and competitiveness of our team.
“They compete at everything. They can’t get on the bus without competing, and everyone keeps score on everything. Everything is a competition, and they’re not afraid of that.”
UNK 3, Rockhurst 1
Scores by Set
RU (33-8) 23 26 22 19 – 1
UNK (38-0) 25 24 25 25 – 3
KILLS – RU: Mary Rolf 13, Karli Reichert 13, Justice Wingate 10, Dani Prusha 3, Alyssa Woodman 15, Audrey Arand 7. UNK: Kamryn Schuler 5, Maddie Squiers 2, Anna Squiers 19, Josie Cox 3, Julianne Jackson 20, Sami Mauch 1, MK Wolfe 9.
ASSISTS – RU: Mary Rolf 1, Karli Reichert 1, Dani Prusha 51, Audrey Arand 2. UNK: Lindsay Nottlemann 2, Maddie Squiers 52, Anna Squiers 1, Julianne Jackson 1, MO Schafer 1, MK Wolfe 1.
ACES – RU: Dani Prusha 1. UNK: Anna Squiers 1.
DIGS – RU: Jadyn Makovicka 31, Karli Reichert 13, Alyssa Woodman 16, Audrey Arand 12. UNK: Lindsay Nottlemann 19, Kamryn Schuler 3, Maddie Squiers 14, Anna Squiers 4, Josie Cox 2, Emma Benton 3, Julianne Jackson 19, Mo Schafer 10, MK Wolfe 18.
BLOCKS – RU: Mary Rolf 6, Karli Reichert 7, Justice Wingate 7, Alyssa Woodman 2, Audrey Arand 4. UNK: Kamryn Schuler 3, Maddie Squiers 5, Anna Squiers 6, Josie Cox 7, Sami Mauch 1, MK Wolfe 3.