KEARNEY — There was something special about the 2019 University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball team.
From the very beginning — an exhibition win over Wyoming, a 22-9 NCAA Division I team — through 38 straight victories, the Lopers built a local following unlike any other.
Although the season ended with a four-set loss to Cal State San Bernardino in the Division II national championship match in Denver, the first-ever meeting of two undefeated teams in the championship match, UNK’s runner-up season dominated the sports pages this fall and has been selected as the top local sports story by the Kearney Hub sports staff.
Coach Rick Squiers called the team “one of the best teams we’ve ever had not only in volleyball but in our athletic program at UNK.”
The team, led by MIAA Co-Player of the Year Julianne Jackson, won the conference regular season championship and won the league tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Earning the right to host the regional tournament in Kearney, the Lopers took advantage of the home court to end a six-year streak of first-round losses in the NCAA Tournament to defeat Oklahoma Baptist.
Two nights later, UNK and perennial national power Concordia-St. Paul squared off in an epic final. The Lopers faced elimination trailing 20-11 in the fourth set, but rallied to win 25-23. A rally from a 9-4 deficit in the fifth set sent UNK to the Elite Eight in Denver.
“We are proud of the girls and the season they had and the effort they put in,” Squiers told the Hub. “We are still disappointed that we came up one short. But I think we also realize that we were playing uphill a little bit against San Bernardino, who’s an awfully good team. I think we are shifting gears now and trying to enjoy the year we had, but also look forward and try to get some momentum toward next year and make another good run.”
Squiers had an unusual connection with the team as two of his daughters played key roles. Maddie was the team’s starting setter and Anna was the middle hitter.
“It’s special when you think about it from that standpoint, especially now that you’ve had a chance to reflect on it. Maddie and Anna both played well and had good, strong postseasons. I thought Anna played some of her best volleyball of the season in the Elite Eight,” Rick Squiers said. “When you kind of take your coaching hat off, you get to realize how special that was.”
UNK had four seniors on the team: Jackson, Mackenzie Puckett, Josie Cox and Emma Benton.
Rounding out the Top Ten:
No. 2 – UNK football team blew away Winona State 50-33 to win the Mineral Water Bowl to finish 7-5, the first winning season since 2011.
No. 3 – Kearney High’s first baseball team advances to the state tournament in its first year, finishing 18-10.
No. 4 – The Tri-City Storm wins the Anderson Cup for the best regular-season record but is eliminated by SIoux Falls in the conference finals. Following the season, owner Kirk Brooks sold the Storm and the Viaero Center to an ownership group out of Illinois.
No. 5 – After more than a year as the Interim Athletic Director at UNK, former wrestling coach Marc Bauer is selected to fill the position.
No. 6 – Kearney High sophomore swimmer Katie Philpot wins two gold and two silver medals at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.
No. 7 – Pleasanton wrestler Tyler Pawlowski becomes a four-time state champion wrestler.
No. 8 – Axtell boys run off with the Class D state track and state cross country championships. The track title was the second straight for the Wildcats.
No. 9 – Lexington jumpers Madison Smith and Ajack Waikur sailed to unfathomed distances in the jumps. Smith won the all-class gold medal in the long jump and put her name on the all-time list with the third-best long jump in state history — 19 feet, 10 inches. Waikur won all-class gold medals in the high jump and triple jump at the state meet, falling just short of the all-time top-10 lists.
No. 10 – Kearney High graduate Brett Maher returns to Kearney to help with flood relief then has an up-and-down season becoming the first kicker in NFL history to kick two field goals longer than 60 yards. However, inconsistency caused the Cowboys to release Maher before the end of the season.