KEARNEY — University of Nebraska at Kearney hasn’t had the NCAA Tournament success its hoped to have in recent years.
Last year’s stunning first-round exit against eighth-seeded Harding University at the Health and Sports Center marked the sixth consecutive year the Lopers were bounced in the first round.
On Thursday night, the Lopers hope they can reverse their recent trend. The Lopers are hosting a regional for the second consecutive year and will play another team from the Great American Conference.
The top-seeded Lopers (33-0) will face off against eighth-seeded Oklahoma Baptist (28-5), who will be appearing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament since moving to the Division II level in 2017, at 7:30 p.m. at the Health and Sports Center. It marks the Lopers’ 21st consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Last year’s five-set loss to Harding remains a sore subject for the Lopers. But in a way, it also has motivated them, as no player on the roster has experienced what it’s like to win a match in the tournament.
“There are a number of players on the team that have made mention to the fact that they want to win in the NCAA Tournament,” coach Rick Squiers said. “But that has been going on for a few years. We’ve had three or four upperclassmen years that have said that they want to break the cycle.
“I don’t want it to be only about that. This group has done everything right. They want to win as bad any anybody. If they win, that will be great. But if we don’t, that doesn’t mean they’re a failure or anything like that.”
Unlike last year, the Lopers are familiar with their first-round opponent. The Lopers faced the Bison in their third game of the season on Sept. 7. It also ended up being the closest the Lopers came to dropping a match throughout the regular season and MIAA Tournament.
The Bison stormed out to a two-set lead, prevailing 25-19 and 25-17 in the first two sets. The Lopers hit below .100 in each of the first two sets but quickly improved their efficiency in the third. They hit over .500 in the third and fourth sets to force a decisive fifth, which the Lopers won 15-13.
The Bison have multiple offensive weapons, including junior outside hitter Malia Leatherland, who had 20 kills in the first meeting against the Lopers and led the Bison in all the attacking categories this season.
Junior outside hitter Hayley Daniel and freshman middle blocker Taneyah Brown are the Bison’s other two main offensive options.
“I think we realize that they have a pair of really good outside hitters and a couple other really dynamic attackers,” Squiers said. “We’ve had more time to prepare for that and hopefully that’ll slow them down a little.”
When the Lopers square off against the Bison on Thursday, the Lopers will have had seven practices since they defeated Central Missouri in the championship match of the MIAA Tournament on Nov. 23 in Kansas City, Mo.
Squiers doesn’t plan on making drastic changes in preparation for the NCAA Tournament and instead wants his team to focus on the fundamental details required in defeating the Bison, he said.
The Lopers are a balanced team with more attacking power than last year’s unit with the additions of redshirt freshman outside hitter Sami Mauch, freshman outside hitter Kamryn Schuler and freshman middle blocker Michaela Bartels. Junior setter Maddie Squiers also brings a dynamic, well-rounded ability to the Lopers after redshirting last season.
“We just try to put our focus on the small things like what our game plan is, what our job is and how we are trying to play each rotation against Oklahoma Baptist,” Squiers said. “I think that’s all we can do, and that’s how we’ve gotten to this point.”
In the eight-team regional, the Bison are the lone unranked team. The other seven teams are all ranked in the top nine of the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association national poll. The Lopers are ranked second and join top-ranked Cal State San Bernardino as the only undefeated teams in Division II.
Every year, the Central Regional is the top region in Division II volleyball. The amount of high-quality teams resulted in five top-25 ranked teams missing the tournament this year.
The winner of the Loper, Bison match will face either fourth-seeded Northern State or fifth-seeded St. Cloud State in the second round at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The regional championship match is at 7 p.m. Saturday.
This year’s Elite Eight will be held in Denver on Dec. 12-14.
“I think being undefeated is definitely in the back seat now,” Squiers said. “Maybe it’s something our opponents still think about as far as giving them another reason to want to beat us. I don’t think it’s at the forefront of our minds. I think we are just trying to keep our season alive and win a NCAA Tournament game.”