Kearney, Neb. – Middle blockers Anna Squiers and Michaela Bartels combined for 32 kills to help 11th-ranked Nebraska-Kearney rally past Oklahoma Baptist in five sets (19-25, 17-25, -7, -14, -13) Saturday afternoon at the Health & Sports Center.
The match was part of the Loper Preseason Invite presented by Best Western and New Victorian Inn & Suites. UNK (4-0) was the tourney champion on the strength of sweeping the Augustana Vikings (3-1) in the evening match. The scores were 25-12, 25-16 and 25-17.
In last year’s NCAA Tournament the Lopers fell to the Harding Bison of the Great American Conference. OBU (3-1) is also from the GAC and nicknamed the Bison. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead over UNK by hitting .273 (16-4-4) in set one and then .406 (15-2-32) in set two. Meanwhile, the Lopers hit below .100 in each set and had a combined 21 kills.
“Things weren’t looking really at that point. To be able to regroup and play at the level we’re capable of playing at from that point forward we couldn’t feel any better about it,” UNK head coach Rick Squiers said. “There’s certainly things we need to work on coming out of the first weekend but we showed some grit and competitiveness so we’re optimistic.”
Squiers (Kearney Catholic) and Bartels (Bennington) combined for 11 kills on just 15 attempts (.733) in the third set as UNK rolled by 18 points. Hitting .522 overall, that number rose to .529 (19-1-34) in the fourth as the Blue & Gold suddenly couldn’t be stopped with OBU cooling off a bit.
“The only thing we did from a tactical standpoint was we started to try and run our middles right at them. We had a little discussions between games two and three that we were struggling to score from the pins and kind of playing into their hands because they are a really good defensive team,” Squiers said. “We thought maybe between Anna and Michaela we could run offense right down the middle at them. Both caught fire at the same time. We passed well enough, Madison (Squiers) got them the ball and momentum came our way.”
The fifth set featured nine ties and three lead changes with the Bison moving ahead 11-9 on the strength of a kill by Malia Leatherland and an unforced Loper error. After a timeout, UNK got three straight kills from senior outside Julianne Jackson (Bonner Springs, Kan.) to move ahead for good. While OBU tied things at 12, they followed with two service errors to let the Lopers reach match point. Senior outside Emma Benton (G.I. Central Catholic) ended the long 2:04 match with her 12th kill. She was one of four players in double digits.
Squiers had a team-high 17 kills and hit .250 while serving up three of UNK’s eight aces. Next, Bartels had 15 kills and hit .414 with Benton having 12 kills and a .462 hitting efficiency. Finally, Jackson came in at 16 digs, 10 kills and two blocks.
Leatherland paced OBU with a match-high 20 kills, a .404 attack percentage, seven digs and two blocks. OBU had nine more digs than UNK but 11 fewer kills and was minus seven in the serve game.
Things were easier against an AU Viking squad that the Lopers are rather familiar with this season. Benton and junior right side Mary Katherine Wolfe (Omaha Marian) had 10 kills apiece with junior setter Maddie Squiers (Kearney Catholic) at 33 assists, 16 digs, six kills and an ace. Kearney out hit Augie by well over .250 points and controlled things throughout the night. UNK hosts York College Tuesday night.