HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Massive defensive plays guided Mineral Area through an intense closing sequence in the second set, and again when trouble suddenly arose in game four on Thursday morning.

A local 9 a.m. start had no visible effect on the 6th-seeded Lady Cardinals, who defeated No. 11 Laramie County (Wyo.) 25-18, 28-26, 20-25, 25-16 in the first round of the NJCAA volleyball tournament.

Mineral Area (35-0) entered as one of two remaining unbeaten teams, and guaranteed itself the highest national finish in program history after placing 10th in two previous appearances.

Cailey Bracken connected for a match-high 17 kills while making eight digs. Setter Pam Zuluaga made 13 digs, and earned several of her 46 assists by scrambling to settle errant passes.

“Our goal was to make it into the elite eight,” Mineral Area head coach Tim Copeland said. “After that, let’s try to win another one and make it to the finals. We’re now guaranteed to play here for the next three days, and that’s what we wanted.”

Jane Kickham entered this week ranked fourth nationally in attacking percentage, and compiled 12 kills, nine digs and two aces for the Lady Cardinals.

Mineral Area turned aside one game point as Laramie County (32-7) tried to square the match despite unleashing six service errors in the second set.

The Golden Eagles grabbed a 25-24 lead when Payton Stack blocked a MAC clearing attempt, but Raylyn Dodd won a tying joust after Bracken and Zuluaga reached low to keep the rally alive.

Melissa Avendano knocked down the next point when Kickham was forced to take the second contact, but Laramie County answered as Kylie Martin spiked to make it 26-26.

Avendano added another of her 10 kills with a softer placement after Zuluaga chased down the initial pass, and Mineral Area assumed a two-game lead when Kickham’s reaction dig was misplayed on the Golden Eagles’ side.

Laramie County had already missed 13 serves just past the midway stages of game three, but displayed balanced hitting. Jessica Benedict put down five kills to help her squad salvage a set.

Benedict had two blocks during a single rally, and angled a kill for a 21-18 advantage. Bracken countered with her own kill before Kickham and Dodd combined for a block.

But the Lady Cardinals could not overcome a collision between players after pulling within one point, and two mishandled serves prolonged the match to a fourth set.

Mineral Area stumbled to a 6-2 deficit from there, but regained control when sophomore middle Anica Popadic directed five blocks to the floor during a single rotation across the front row.

Shelby Meyer also served an ace during a key 5-0 spurt, and Popadic terminated a stellar exchange of hustling saves between the teams with another rejection at the net for a four-point lead.

“We called a timeout down 6-2 and just said, ‘Look, we’re a better team than that,’” Copeland said. “You have to play with positivity and energy, and you have to play together.”

“Anica made a big block on the next play. That got us fired up and energized, and we went on a 7-1 run. We made some big plays and our defense picked up a little bit. We started having fun and playing right.”

Zulauga spread quick sets to Dodd, Bracken and Kickham for powerful swings, and Mineral Area rolled to the victory after establishing a 22-13 separation.

Meyer totaled 10 digs plus two aces while Dodd had eight kills and six blocks. Popadic had seven kills with a team-high eight blocks, and ranks 10th nationally in that category.

“I think we just lost focus after fighting so hard to win that second game, and their team didn’t quit,” Copeland said. “But in the end, I think we just had a little more than they could handle.”

Martin powered Laramie County with 14 kills while Avery Nelson added 12 more and Carlee Morrison equaled Benedict with 10 apiece. Kyra Brandt had 42 assists and 10 digs.

Mineral Area bolted to a 7-2 edge in game one after Dodd dominated with three blocks in the first nine points of the contest.

Bracken landed back-to-back attacks at 14-9, and crisp ball movement kept the Lady Cardinals on a solid wave of momentum. Avendano smashed an overpass on game point.

“It worked out, a little more stressful than I wanted it to be – we had an opportunity to close it out in the third but didn’t – but maybe it’s a gut check that helps us out in the long run,” Copeland said.

Matt King is the sports editor for the Daily Journal. Contact him at mking@dailyjournalonine.com

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