ST PAUL - Looking for their sixth straight win over a ranked opponent in six matches, the second-ranked and second-seeded Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team came up short against third-seeded, but also second-ranked, University of Nebraska-Kearney Friday night in a 25-21, 25-18, 26-28, 25-14 loss.
"I think you've got to give Nebraska-Kearney a lot of credit," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "They're really a good team and we knew coming in that you just know in this region that you better be ready to play and you have to play well. They were just better than us and much more consistent than we were tonight. I think that kind of sums it up."
The 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Lopers during the semifinals of the NCAA Central Region tournament ends the best season for SMSU volleyball in over 20 years, if not ever, while also cutting short the careers of three of the Mustangs' most distinguished attackers in seniors Devin Diedrich, Brooke Burmeister and Mary Groth.
"These three (seniors) have just had a huge impact on SMSU volleyball," Culhane said. "I'm really proud of them and we'll miss them a lot."
The showdown between two of Division II volleyball's top teams occurred several rounds too early, said Lopers head coach Rick Squiers, but sharing a region with No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul will force elite matchups earlier than expected.
"It's very unfortunate that two teams this highly ranked had to play each other in a second-round NCAA tournament match," Squiers said. "I know that's the Division II philosophy, but to watch the disappointment on their faces after having to play that second-round match after the season that they've had, it's just not right to know that there are teams that are not of that caliber that are still playing. I hope someday we can fix that."
UNK25 25 26 25
SMSU21 18 28 14
Ace Serves: NK-Molly O'Brien 2, Erin Seele 2, Ashley Leitner, Jenna Rouzee, MJ Massanet; SMSU-Emilee Gutzmer 2, Rachel Westby, Whitney Burmeister, McKell Anderson, Brooke Burmeister.
Kills: NK-Ariel Krolikowski 13, Ellie Pesavento 13, Katie Sokolowski 12, Leitner 10; SMSU-Anderson 14, B. Burmeister 12, Abbey Thissen 11, Mary Groth 10, Devin Diedrich 9.
Digs: NK-Liz McGowan 18, Rouzee 18, Massanet 17, Kolikowski 10; SMSU-B. Burmeister 15, Westby 15, W. Burmeister 13, Gutzmer 12, Anderson 11.
Set Assists: NK-Rouzee 43; SMSU-Gutzmer 52.
Blocks (solo-assists): NK-Sokolowski 0-4, Krolikowski 0-4, Massanet 0-3, Pesavento 0-3; SMSU-Diedrich 1-3, Groth 1-1, Gutzmer 0-2, Anderson 0-1, Thissen 0-1.
The match itself was controlled almost in entirety by the Lopers. Though SMSU had four attackers finish with double-digit kills, five players record double-digit digs and three players with double-doubles, the Mustangs were unable to overcome 28 attacking errors and six service errors during the match. As a team, the Mustangs hit .173 percent against UNK, whereas the Lopers hit .282 over four sets against SMSU.
"Any time you make errors, there are contributing factors," Culhane said. "I think we helped contribute to that and so did (Nebraska-Kearney). I thought they did a good job of touching a lot of balls and defended very well and were aggressive swinging at us.
"We just could never seem to get everybody in the flow of things. And that's volleyball. And in volleyball, typically two things occur: one is you don't handle the ball as well and that was an issue for us, and secondly, hitting percentage is a huge part of the game. Typically when you make that many errors, you don't win."
Culhane said the hitters are not solely to blame for the consistent inconsistencies against the Lopers, noting that volleyball is perhaps the ultimate team sport where each aspect relies on the others.
"I think it's always easier to blame hitters, but when we hit for a high percentage, a lot of it has to do with our ball handlers," he said. "And when we don't hit for a high percentage, unfortunately it has something to do with ball handling, too."
SMSU trailed throughout the first two sets, grabbing its first lead of the night at 3-2 in the wild third set. The Mustangs would establish leads of 7-4, 9-7, 15-10 and 18-14, but the Lopers refused to give in, battling back each time.
Nebraska-Kearney regained the lead in Set 3 at 24-23, but the Mustangs showed resolve of their own, fending off three match points before a 3-0 run gave SMSU a 28-26 win and brought the Mustangs within a game of tying the Lopers.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, Set 4 was more similar to the first two sets than the third. The Mustangs took an early 4-2 lead, but a 6-3 run for the Lopers gave UNK the lead at 8-7, a lead the Lopers would not relinquish.
Nebraska-Kearney outscored SMSU 17-7 to close out the match and the Mustangs' season.
SMSU was led on the day by McKell Anderson's match-high 14 kills and 11 digs, while Burmeister also had a double-double with 12 kills and 15 digs (tied with Rachel Westby for the team lead). Freshman setter Emilee Gutzmer had SMSU's third double-double of the match, recording 52 set assists and 12 digs.
The Lopers had four attackers finish with at least 10 kills, led by Ariel Krolikowski and Ellie Pesavento's 13 kills apiece, while 6-foot-1 senior setter Jenna Rouzee dictated the flow of the match with her 43 set assists, five kills and match-high 18 digs.
The Mustangs finish the 2012 season 30-3 overall, while Nebraska-Kearney (35-2) moves on to face five-time defending national champion Concordia-St. Paul at 7 p.m. today in the Central Region championship.