KEARNEY – Defeat was imminent for University of Nebraska at Kearney against Division II powerhouse Concordia St. Paul in the Sweet 16 on Saturday night.
After letting the third set slip away, the Lopers struggled in serve-receive and trailed the Golden Bears 20-11 in the fourth set.
But the Lopers didn’t disappear. A sense of urgency kicked in, and they won 12 of the next 14 points to hold a 23-22 lead over the Golden Bears in the fourth. The Lopers prevailed in the fourth, forcing a decisive fifth set. They found themselves behind five points in the final set, but once again, they fought back.
The Lopers pulled off a remarkable comeback to eliminate the Golden Bears, who’ve won nine of the last 12 national championships, with a 19-25, 25-19, 24-26, 25-23, 15-13 victory in front of 2,677 fans at the Health and Sports Center to advance to the program’s first Elite Eight since 2005.
“It’s maybe the most improbable victory I’ve ever been a part of,” UNK coach Rick Squiers said. “This group of players deserves an unbelievable amount of respect for what they did. That just doesn’t happen.”
This season, the second-ranked Lopers (36-0) typically had little trouble against opponents due to their strong and consistent play in all facets of the game. They were tested at times throughout the first two days of the NCAA Tournament, but Saturday’s match was unlike any opponent they had faced this season.
The Golden Bears featured size and an array of offensive weapons. They also served aggressively and had a stingy defense that rarely made a mistake, creating the Lopers to earn every point they won.
“I think one reason why they are good, which I don’t think people realize, is they are really good at the serve and pass game,” Squiers said. “I don’t know if we’ve played a team in a long time that came after us from that degree from the service line, and I sure hope we don’t see another one.”
After losing the first set for just the fifth time this season, the Lopers responded in the second. Junior middle blocker Anna Squiers started the second with a kill and the Lopers never looked back.
The Lopers were poised to win the third set and gain a one-set advantage, leading 24-22 after a kill by redshirt freshman outside hitter Sami Mauch. But the Lopers lost control of the set after two Golden Bear kills and a hitting error pushed the Golden Bears to set point.
Jasmine Mulvihill and Kennedy Brady teamed up for a block to clinch the third set for the Golden Bears.
The third-set loss seemed to discourage the Lopers, who allowed the Golden Bears to then gain a comfortable fourth-set lead. The Golden Bears went right at the Loper defense with their serving. It caused the Lopers to play out of system at times and resulted in three service aces for the Golden Bears.
With the Golden Bears ahead 20-11, the Lopers’ hopes of winning the match were fading away. The Health and Sports Center was quiet and the Golden Bears were rolling. But the Lopers won five straight points to pull within 20-16.
That quick scoring spurt sparked the Lopers, who rallied to secure a 23-22 lead.
After a kill by the Golden Bears evened the match at 23-23, the Lopers won the next two points on a Jackson kill and a Golden Bear net violation.
“I think we just decided we weren’t going to go down like we could’ve,” said junior right side MK Wolfe, who finished with 11 kills. “I think we just played all out and didn’t let the score stop us.”
Even though the momentum was in the Lopers’ favor at the conclusion of the fourth set, that energy didn’t carry over into the fifth. The Lopers fell behind 9-4 and were once again in danger of losing.
Mauch had back-to-back kills and Anna Squiers chipped in a block to pull the Lopers within two points of the Golden Bears. The Lopers broke through and tied the match at 13-13 on a kill from Jackson.
A Golden Bear hitting error gave the Lopers set point. Wolfe successfully served the ball over the net and the Golden Bears fed the ball to Brady, who’s attack was blocked by Jackson for the match-winning point.
“There was a lot of heart from the entire team the entire game, and we just got to the end of that fourth set and it was rough,” Jackson said. “We were like, ‘We’ve grinded through this whole season, and lets grind through this last (set).’”
The Lopers’ offense was without starting middle blocker Michaela Bartels most of the match after she suffered an injury in the first set and didn’t return. Seniors Josie Cox and Mackenzie Puckett filled in for Bartels, and both made key plays in the match.
Jackson finished with a match-high 22 kills, 19 digs and five blocks for the Lopers, who outhit the Golden Bears .211 to .179. The Lopers also had 16 team blocks and 112 digs while the Golden Bears had 11 team blocks and 108 digs.
Mauch had a strong showing off the bench for the Lopers, especially after not appearing in their three-set win against Northern State on Saturday. She tallied 14 kills on a team-high .297 hitting percentage.
“I am kind of one of those people that watch the warm up, and I watched Sami Mauch just bounce a bunch of balls in the warmup,” Squiers said. “She had a good night, and once she got into rhythm, I mean she has a big arm and can be a point scorer.”
The Lopers advance to the Elite Eight for the sixth time in program history. They finished as national runner ups in 2005. This year’s event will be held at Metro State University’s Auraria Event Center from Dec. 12-14 in Denver.
The Lopers’ Elite Eight opponent is to be determined, as the NCAA will reseed the tournament field with the eight regional winners.
“It’s just been the most unbelievable ride from the first exhibition match to this point right now,” Squiers said. “They just keep doing amazing things, and this was the cherry on top of all of those amazing things. We are going to enjoy the heck out of it here for maybe a little extra time before we set our sights on next week.”
UNK 3, Concordia St. Paul 2
Scores by Set
CSP (27-8) 25 19 26 23 13 – 2
UNK (36-0) 19 25 24 25 15 – 3
KILLS – CSP: Jasmine Mulvihill 19, Erin Fallert 20, Sara Macek 12, Kennedy Brady 10, Sydney Book 9, Ellie Veldman 2, Tori Hanson 1. UNK: Maddie Squiers 3, Anna Squiers 8, Julianne Jackson 22, MK Wolfe 11, Michaela Bartels 2, Kamryn Schuler 2, Josie Cox 2, Sami Mauch 14.
ASSISTS – CSP: Payton Nutter 39, Jasmine Mulvihill 1, Kennedy Brady 1, Ellie Veldman 20, Tori Hanson 9. UNK: Maddie Squiers 50, Julianne Jackson 2, MK Wolfe 2, Lindsay Nottlemann 5, Kamryn Schuler 1.
ACES – CSP: Makenna Berger 1, Payton Nutter 1, Erin Fallert 2, Kennedy Brady 2, Tori Hanson 2. UNK: MK Wolfe 1, Kamryn Schuler 2, Emma Benton 1.
DIGS – CSP: Makenna Berger 13, Payton Nutter 15, Jasmine Mulvihill 10, Erin Fallert 21, Kennedy Brady 6, Sydney Book 4, Ellie Veldman 4, Tori Hanson 35. UNK: Maddie Squiers 26, Anna Squiers 3, Julianne Jackson 19, Mo Schafer 14, MK Wolfe 22, Lindsay Nottlemann 24, Kamryn Schuler 1, Emma Benton 2, Sami Mauch 1.
BLOCK - CSP: Jasmine Mulvihill 3, Erin Fallert 1, Sara Macek 5, Kennedy Brady 6, Ellie Veldman 6. UNK: Maddie Squiers 4, Anna Squiers 5, Julianne Jackson 5, MK Wolfe 3, Josie Cox 2, Mackenzie Puckett 2, Sami Mauch 2.