KEARNEY — The euphoria lingers, but there’s a new task to perform.
University of Nebraska at Kearney volleyball had an improbable comeback Saturday to defeat Concordia-St. Paul in the Sweet 16.
The Lopers let the third set slip away and then found themselves trailing by nine points, 20-11, in the fourth set. Just a few points away from the end of their season, the Lopers responded. They overcame the monumental deficit and prevailed in the fourth set.
The Lopers also trailed by five points in the fifth but won the set and the match over the Golden Bears to advance to their first Elite Eight since 2005.
"There’s no questions it was one of the greatest days in Loper volleyball history, and it was one of the greatest days in my coaching career to be a part of something like that," coach Rick Squiers said.
On Sunday, the second-ranked Lopers (36-0) found out they were the second seed in the Elite Eight and will face Gannon (Pa.) University (30-6) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Metro State University’s Auraria Event Center in Denver.
The Lopers are eager to compete for a national championship. But on Monday, the Lopers still weren’t over their incredible victory from Saturday. Rick Squiers said he had his team practice Monday to bring them in and try to change their focus.
"I think we are still kind of on that high," said Maddie Squiers after Monday’s practice. "We are still talking about the game. We haven’t stopped talking about the game, haven’t stopped thinking about the game. But I guess, coach said at the end of practice today that we have until tonight and then we just have to move on and focus on this weekend."
The Lopers have handled the pressure of being undefeated and one of the country’s top teams this season.
Although the Lopers hope to win three matches and return to Kearney with the national championship, they are trying to take each match one at a time, Maddie Squiers said.
Gannon is in the NCAA Tournament for the 11th straight season and won the Atlantic Region via a sweep of top-seeded and 15th-ranked Wheeling, W.V., in the regional final. Gannon also reached the Final Four two years ago.
The Golden Knights feature a balanced offense that’s averaging a .240 hitting percentage this season. They rely mostly on five players for offensive production.
Senior outside hitter Ally Smith leads the Golden Knights with 388 kills this season. She’s averaging 3.32 kills per set and has a .208 hitting percentage.
Sophomore outside hitter Lauren Sampson ranks second on the team with 306 kills for a 3.15 kills per set average and a .226 hitting percentage. Sophomore right side hitter Ashley McClung, junior middle blocker Ashley Kerestes and sophomore middle blocker Maggie Greenfield also serve as options for the Golden Knights’ offense.
Rick Squiers said the Golden Knights have "had an unbelievable season in their own right" and hopes the Lopers’ victory on Saturday can propel them the rest of the season.
"You hope this is the kind of thing that can springboard you, especially a match like that where you kind of steal a victory from the jaws of defeat and start believing that maybe there’s something special at the end of all of that," Rick Squiers said.
The Lopers have remained relatively healthy throughout the season. But in Saturday’s match against Concordia-St. Paul, their rotation took a hit when freshman middle blocker Michaela Bartels went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first set.
Seniors Mackenzie Puckett and Josie Cox replaced Bartels on Saturday and those two will try to fill the void moving forward. Although both players have received limited playing time this season, both have starting experience throughout their collegiate careers.
On Saturday, Cox played in four sets and recorded two kills and two blocks. Puckett appeared in two sets and tallied two blocks.
"Both Mackenzie and Josie have been starters in the past, so you are looking at seniors who have been out there and who understand how they can and can’t help you sometimes," Rick Squiers said.
If the Lopers win Thursday, they will face the winner of the No. 19 Rockhurst (32-7) and Carson Newman (28-7) match at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The Lopers defeated Rockhurst in four sets Sept. 14 at the Health and Sports Center.
Top-seeded Cal State San Bernardino (30-0) and fourth-seeded Regis (28-4) are the higher seeds on the other side of the bracket.
"I think it’s nice to know we can compete with whoever is on the other side of the net, especially against people who have been there before," senior outside hitter Julianne Jackson said. "I’m not sure it’ll get any easier, it’ll just be a little different."
UNK players from Telegraph area
Josie Cox, North Platte
Sami Mauch, North Platte
Gracie Stienike, Gothenburg
Carissa Jensen, Cozad
Taylin McNair, Chase County and NPCC