HUTCHINSON, Kan. – The final chapter in a season of landmark achievement was not what the Mineral Area volleyball team had envisioned on Saturday.
An inspired closing stretch could not rescue the Lady Cardinals from the wages of recurring flaws in ball placement and court coverage during their farewell match at the NJCAA Tournament.
But their resilience and will to compete were evident down to the very last play as 10 match points were required to extinguish a compelling comeback bid.
Polk State, the second of three Florida schools qualifying from powerful Region 8, held off Mineral Area 25-23, 25-23, 23-25, 27-25 to capture fifth place.
Chiara Bosetti compiled 17 kills with 14 digs, and Kathya Garcia totaled 16 kills plus 17 digs to pace the Eagles (20-9), who registered a 62-50 margin in kills.
Serve receiving and general passing factored into several crucial sequences, including an opening 8-2 spurt by Polk State in game four.
Garcia landed two spikes after MAC was forced to simply clear, and later served an ace and overpass that was easily hammered down by Anilize Fitzi.
The Eagles varied the speed of their attacks – fitting many between blockers and the back row – and often spiked at setter Pam Zuluaga with the intent to create confusion on the second ball.
Zuluaga notched 32 assists and a season-high 26 digs, while libero Shelby Meyer stepped forward to bump a career-high nine assists.
“We were expecting them to hit, hit, hit, because that’s what they did on film. They didn’t tip a lot,” Mineral Area head coach Tim Copeland said. “We kept telling our players to make adjustments, but the mindset was to expect hitting. Every time a block closed, they tipped and scored 17 out of 25 times. That was a big edge for them, and it frustrated us. We just never got rolling.”
Cailey Bracken powered Mineral Area with 19 kills for a second straight contest, and middle Anica Popadic shined with 10 blocks on the defensive side.
Ainslee Finch added a pair of saving digs while serving a stunning 8-0 run after the Lady Cardinals reached the brink of defeat trailing 24-16.
Bracken drilled two cross-court swings and Popadic rejected two straight attacks before Polk State surrendered a hitting error and net violation to even the score.
A go-ahead kill by Veronika Nemcova was countered by Bracken at 25-25, but an ensuing error and superb dig by libero Diana Carranza helped the Eagles prevail.
“It looked to be over, and all of a sudden, we score eight in a row with two timeouts and I’m like ‘Hey, we’re going to win,’” Copeland said. “But it just wasn’t our day.”
While the loss clearly stung the Lady Cardinals moments after the final whistle sounded, it could not tarnish a legacy that had long been solidified over the previous three months.
Mineral Area (36-2) posted 35 consecutive victories entering the quarterfinal round, and secured its highest national finish in three NJCAA appearances.
The result was stamped by a signature triumph in five games over No. 2 seed Iowa Western on Friday afternoon. But that level of intensity proved difficult to duplicate less than 24 hours later.
“We came here wanting to play for a national championship, and we would like to have finished today with a win for fifth place,” Copeland said. “But if you told me at the beginning of the year that we would take sixth, then I wouldn’t have complained one time. I’m proud of the girls.”
Game one featured 16 ties and little separation either way. Mineral Area grabbed a 16-14 lead before Polk State seized a stellar rally with three blocks and eventually moved ahead 21-19.
The Lady Cardinals responded from a timeout to generate tying smashes by Jane Kickham and Raylyn Dodd. However, Bosetti snapped a 23-23 score with her seventh kill of game one, and a shanked serve ended the set.
Mineral Area earned its most impressive point of game two to draw within 12-10 after four different players executed tough digs near the floor ahead of Melissa Avendano’s spike off a block.
Bosetti delivered a solo stuff and pounced on the next overpass for Polk State, and Garcia dominated with nine kills in the stanza to help establish a 20-12 margin.
Popadic struck from the middle behind an ace by Finch during an 8-2 spurt by the Lady Cards, who got within 24-22 after Bracken connected from the left side.
A red card was issued to the Eagles by the chair referee for arguing, resulting in a free point to MAC. Bosetti tipped perfectly over a double block to give her squad a two-game edge.
Kickham provided 12 kills while equaling Meyer with 17 digs apiece, and broke a 22-22 deadlock with consecutive lasers to help Mineral Area clinch game three.
Fitzi eliminated one set point with a block for Polk State, but setter Manuela Vargas was called for a net violation that drew another outward objection.
Finch brought up 12 digs, and Dodd had six kills with four blocks. The local freshmen from Farmington and Fredericktown, respectively, quickly became fixtures in the regular lineup this season.
The focus now shifts to the future for an accomplished nucleus of departing MAC sophomores. Dozens of scouts and coaches from four-year programs of all sizes were on hand to evaluate talent.
“Anica signed with Florida Southern before we came up here, and there has been anywhere from five to 10 coaches at this tournament looking at our other sophomores,” Copeland said.
Miami-Dade capped a perfect season at 34-0, and repeated as national champions with a straight-set triumph over Southern Idaho on Saturday night.
No. 13 New Mexico Military toppled No. 7 Tyler (Texas) for third place and played the role of bracket buster with three victories over higher seeds.