Lopers top UCCS in RMAC championship match
KEARNEY, Neb. -- It was fitting that Sunday was Veteran's Day.
The vastly experienced and No. 1-seeded Nebraska-Kearney Lopers ended the playoff run of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, which was making its first appearance in a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship match, 3-1 (30-28, 24-30, 30-17, 30-25) Sunday at the Health and Sports Center.
"It was a bad thing and it was a good thing," said UCCS coach Jessica Wood. "It was a hard-fought match that's all you can hope for. In a championship match, you never know who's going to come out on top."
Nikki Scott led the champion Lopers (31-4) with 21 kills, while Erica Burson added 20. Cola Svec had 65 assists.
The Mountain Lions (20-12) were led by Diane Sheldon, who had 17 kills. Brooke Akers had 15 kills and assisted on seven blocks, while Heidi Fehringer added 12. Four UCCS players registered double-digit kills, led by Andrea Weedman (19) and Stephanie Laband (16).
"It's tough being a senior, knowing you can't come back and do it again next year," said Sheldon, who was comforted somewhat by the knowledge that the Mountain Lions are a virtual lock to qualify for next weekend's regional tournament. "I wish we could have played them on a neutral court."
The Mountain Lions will likely be returning to Kearney for the regionals. The Lopers were ranked No. 1 in the last regional poll and did nothing during the tournament to merit a tumble. That suits Wood just fine.
"I love playing here," said Wood. "The fans are great and everybody has class. It's a fun atmosphere."
The Lopers came into the title match as the decided favorite. They had won 16 consecutive matches and during that span had lost just six games while winning 48. The streak had helped UNK reach the 30-win mark for the 23rd time in program history, whereas UCCS has reached 20 wins just twice, including this season.
But where the Lopers' veteran status was most pronounced was in championship-match experience. UNK has now won seven RMAC titles. UCCS was making its first appearance in a championship game.
"It can be an advantage because they've played in that big match and in front of a crazy crowd," said Wood. "But I think our girls handled the pressure just fine."
They certainly handled it well early in the first game, racing to a 19-12 lead behind three kills by Sheldon. The Lopers managed to trim the lead to 21-16 when Fehringer rejected four consecutive UNK attacks, the fourth resulting in an assisted block with Lauren Orth. Rather than quiet the savvy crowd of 1,289 it fired it up and the Lopers rode that support. They dominated the next several points, tying the game at 24, before a Sheldon kill stopped the bleeding.
"We played well; we fought hard," said Sheldon. "It was difficult since they had the home court advantage and the big crowd."
Kearney kept applying pressure, finally taking its first lead since 2-1 when a Burson kill made it 27-26 before the rookie in UCCS showed up. A service error and a hitting error sent Game 1 out with a whimper, 30-28.
The Mountain Lions again surged to an early lead in Game 2 but, this time, the Lopers could not recover despite the best efforts of Scott, who had six kills. UCCS grabbed a 20-13 lead and UNK never got closer than four afterwards, thanks largely to a Mountain Lions' net game that put down five blocks and Sheldon, who had five kills.
While UCCS led wire-to-wire in the second game, the opposite was true in the third. The Lopers came out of the break playing angry and raced to a 14-5 lead. The deficit swelled to as many as 14 as UNK, which outhit UCCS .412 to .022 and had six blocks, cruised to a 30-17 win and a 2-1 advantage in games.
But the Lopers' dominance in Game 3 may have cost them in Game 4. After opening with a 7-4 lead, they seemed almost confused when UCCS didn't roll over. The Mountain Lions put together an 11-4 run, forcing UNK coach Rick Squiers to use his second timeout before the match's midway point.
The stoppage worked, though, as the Lopers recovered to surge ahead 21-19. The lead was 25-23 when Scott put down three kills to close out the match.
Scott, Burson and Svec were all named to the all-tournament team from the Lopers, while Akers and Sheldon received the honor from UCCS. Also added were Adams State's Andrea Tuck and Western New Mexico's Alzie Auelua.
UCCS Players/Staff Featured
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