Different location, same result: Lopers win fourth straight tourney crown

The Lopers pose with the MIAA Tournament trophy after winning it for the fourth consecutive year
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The second-ranked Nebraska-Kearney volleyball team scored the final five points in the second set to get off the mat and went on to beat No. 10 Central Missouri (19-25, -23, -21, -14) in the MIAA Tournament finals Saturday night in Kansas City.

The Lopers (33-0) win this event for a fourth straight season and for the fifth time since joining the league in 2012. UNK will undoubtedly host the NCAA Tournament Central Regional December 5-7 (Thurs.-Sat.) at the Health & Sports Center. The 64-team NCAA field will be announced Monday night at 6:30 p.m. Central at www.ncaa.com.

"Hats off to Central Missouri. They have a heck of a team and belong in the tournament. I hope they get in," UNK head coach Rick Squiers told KRVN's Jayson Jorgensen. "Early on we took quite a shot from them. You watch that team warm up and you wonder how you're going to stop them. And early we didn't stop them very well and then we struggled ourselves."

To beat UCM (23-9) for a 10th straight time, the Lopers had to dig deep as they dropped the first set by six points and then trailed in the second by deficits of 4-0, 8-3, 17-12 and 23-20. As they have all fall a gritty UNK team found away, getting three straight kills to knot things up for sixth and final time in the set. Freshman outside Kamryn Schuler (Gretna) had the last two kills with another one by junior middle Anna Squiers (Kearney Catholic) allowing Kearney to reach an unlikely set point.

A Jennie timeout followed but didn't help as Schuler and Squiers combined for a block, a set win and a huge momentum change.

"it really wasn't looking good but we just kept fighting. That's what we are … we do it with ball control, defense, and scrappiness. And our players are smart," Squiers said. "The first set and a half Maddie (Squiers) was everywhere. We didn't win the first set but she dug nine balls. She was just trying to do everything and I thought between her and Julianne (Jackson) they just wouldn't let us come apart."

The pivotal third set featured seven ties and four lead changes and was a series of runs. UCM broke an eight all knot with a 3-1 spurt and then UNK countered with a 5-1 run capped by a kill from senior outside Julianne Jackson (Bonner Springs, Kan.). That resulted in a UCM timeout but the break again didn't help as the Lopers tacked on three more points to open up a 17-12 cushion. Jackson had a kill there with junior right side Mary Katherine Wolfe (Omaha Marian) having one of the team's five aces on the evening.

While UCM cut the deficit to 21-19 on an unforced Loper attack error, Kearney closed things out thanks to three Jennie unforced errors and a kill by redshirt freshman outside Sami Mauch (North Platte). She came off the bench to have five and they all seemingly came at the right time.

"We got a contribution from a lot of people like Sami coming off the bench. Even Emma (Benton) bothers them with the deep float serve," Squiers said. "Once we got it rolling we're a good finishing team. As you start playing teams like this where everybody has firepower, it's just hard to look down the bench and see Sami. Her learning curve is going to happen right into the postseason because you got to have that swing out there."

Central Missouri went five sets to upset No. 3 Washburn Friday night and eventually seemed to wear out in the fourth. UNK hit .351 (14-1-37) in the set with Squiers having two aces as part of a six-point run from the service line. That made the score 18-9 and the celebration was about to begin.

"Just couldn't be prouder of our kids. It's been a special group, a special year. I hope it keeps going for a long time but there's no guarantee in this region. You're going to be playing someone really good so all the NCAA matches will be like this," Squiers said.

UNK had three more kills, 57-54, than UCM but hit 39 points higher, .200-.161. The Lopers had no blocks in the opening set but 10 over the final three while being plus three in the serve game.

Individually Jackson (17) and Schuler (13) combined for 30 of the kills with Squiers adding eight and Wolfe and Bennington freshman Michaela Bartels joining Mauch with five apiece. Jackson, the MIAA Co-Player of the Year, came alive late to the tune of eight third-set kills and five more in the fourth.

Next, Lincoln sophomore libero Lindsay Nottlemann had a match-high 27 digs with four others reaching a double digit total as well. That included Wolfe (14), Jackson (12) and junior setter Madison Squiers (16). She also had 45 assists, three blocks, three kills and an ace. Finally Anna Squiers had a team-best four stuffs with Jackson and Bartels at three apiece.

UCM got 25 digs and 14 kills from Aubree Bell and 12 kills from Hannah VanBuskirk who was very strong in the early going.