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Cardinals 10th in nation after losing tight finale

HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Although the final chapter lacked a perfect conclusion on Saturday, the aggregate result was viewed as highly satisfying for the Mineral Area volleyball program.

Making their fourth all-time NJCAA Tournament appearance, the Cardinals regrouped from unfortunate circumstances during their opening match to secure another top-10 finish.

Laramie County (Wyo.) thrived late in game four behind stingy defense, and edged Mineral Area 22-25, 25-22, 27-25, 25-23 in the ninth-place contest at Hutchinson Sports Arena.

Avery Nelson slammed 17 kills and Jazzy Espinoza efficiently planted 15 on just 26 attacks for the Golden Eagles (32-9). Kyle Meltzer produced 26 digs and Kasandra Sturges made 47 assists.

Middle hitter Cindy Garcia Penaloza capped her marvelous freshman campaign with 16 kills, three aces and 10 blocks, including four solo. Her final swing helped the Cardinals (29-5) fend off an initial match point.

Laramie County executed a smooth transition off the next serve, and Kylie Martin looked cross-court for her 11th kill and a third straight win for a club clearly underestimated in the bracket.

Mineral Area enjoyed its best national finish of sixth last year, and beat the 11th-seeded Golden Eagles in the first round to reach the elite eight.

“They are a lot better than last year. In my mind, they are not a 15 seed,” 13th-year Mineral Area head coach Tim Copeland said. “And we still had opportunities. We could have won if we hasn’t made so many mistakes. You can’t give away 25 points in a match.”

Katie Duncan notched 11 kills and Isidora Stojovic added 10 for the Cardinals. Fellow sophomore Shelby Meyer compiled 22 digs, seven assists and two aces from her libero position.

While inconsistency plagued both teams during different junctures, Laramie County shined best at the close of games. Mineral Area conversely seemed unaffected by the early 10 a.m. start time.

The Cardinals scored eight consecutive points with Ainslee Finch at the service line, and jumped ahead 12-4 in game one after superior court coverage from Meyer and Emily Greif preceded a Duncan kill.

Laramie County steadily charged after being down 17-9, and was fueled when Payton Stack paired with Nelson for back-to-back scoring blocks.

Mineral Area restored a 22-15 margin as Penaloza followed a Stojovic kill with a block, but struggled mightily to close over the next few minutes.

Laura Danezzi was called twice for double contact as the MAC offense was suddenly shaken. Espinoza crushed two previous kills, and the lead was reduced to 23-22.

Laramie County was unable to complete the comeback, however, as a 10-foot spike sailed and a low pass on the ensuing serve created a lifting violation.

“We had surges and runs where we looked pretty good,” Copeland said. “Then we would miss a serve, have a hand call or hit the ball out of bounds, and follow that with four or five points where we would dominate before giving it back. That’s hard to deal with when playing in the national tournament.”

The Golden Eagles squared the match by earning 18 of its 25 points in game two on kills, including six from Espinoza and four more by Nelson. They eventually opened up leads of 12-7 and 17-12.

Duncan countered with six kills of her own in the set, but Meltzer was key in keeping several other swings by the Cardinals from touching the floor.

MAC adjusted its offense as Penaloza twice tipped successfully over triple blocking, and Stojovic ripped her strongest line kill of the night to bring the margin within 19-17.

But Lizzy Clark used two of her nine kills to send LCCC ahead 24-17. Penaloza served two jumping aces and induced an overpass for Raylyn Dodd during a 5-0 spurt that Martin eventually halted.

The pivotal third set contained 10 ties and saw Mineral Area repeatedly battle back with defense as Laramie County tried to extend narrow leads.

Penaloza evened the score at 16-16 with two booming blocks after Raylyn Dodd smashed a middle kill. Sydni Basler contributed six challenging digs and Meyer provided several more during the stanza.

But a couple of errant passes proved costly before the Golden Eagles moved ahead 23-20 on a Martin spike. Penaloza came back with a block and ace, but served the next ball into the net.

The Cardinals resisted three set points as Dodd calmly landed a pair of tying swings off saving digs from Meyer and Finch for a 25-25 score.

Nelson continued her reliable hitting to put the Golden Eagles on top again, and Meltzer guided a short serve perfectly to a vacant hole inside the front row for a clinching ace.

“When you get on a big stage, the players who can handle it really shine. The ones who can’t usually stand out the other way,” Copeland said. “There weren’t many differences stat-wise. It was all pretty even. That was a good match for us to have, but you just want to come out on top.”

Laramie County assumed an 18-14 advantage in game four after Sturges dinked on second contact and Nelson crushed the next attack from the left side. Anxiety and urgency would build from there.

Meyer served an ace after Dodd got her eighth kill of the day, and handled blistering spikes along with Danezzi to help Penaloza convert two attacks for another tie.

Danezzi avoided glancing the net while reaching a tight pass to set Stojovic, who followed her go-ahead kill with a key block that gave the Cardinals a promising 22-20 edge.

But the final momentum shift belonged to Laramie County. Meltzer stopped two lasers from Penaloza to help snap a 22-22 deadlock, and Jessica Benedict teamed with Sturges for a stuff-block on Duncan.

Basler totaled 16 digs and Greif brought up 12 for Mineral Area. Danezzi dished out 40 assists while Melissa Avendano chipped in six kills.

The Cardinals began the tournament on Thursday with a four-game defeat against Trinity Valley after a mistake in the official scorebook that was later privately admitted cost them the first set.

They responded from adversity by eliminating both Monroe and Hill on Friday. All five losses suffered by Mineral Area this year were against fellow NJCAA qualifiers, including four that placed third through sixth on Saturday.

MAC defeated seven ranked opponents, and began the season by winning 21 of its first 22 matches with a much different crew after needing to replace the production of three all-Americans.

“At the beginning of the season, I really didn’t know if we would do this, especially with the new district [format]” Copeland said. “Those all-Americans played with so much fire, energy and drive. Cailey and Pam would not let anyone loaf or walk around. They constantly pushed you.

“This team didn’t start out with that same push, but they all played for each other. I’m proud of how hard they worked to get here. It all worked out and we earned our bid. To be 10th in the nation, if we could do that every year and finish around 29-5, I couldn’t complain too much about that.”

Mineral Area will lose six members of its regular 10-player rotation to graduation, including four of five top hitters in Duncan, Dodd, Stojovic and Avendano. Meyer and Finch will also move on from the back row, along with two-year player Megan Blair and back-up setter Maria Cristina Castillo Grey.

Southern Idaho swept two-time reigning champion Miami-Dade to capture the national title on Saturday night in a clash of the top two seeds. Iowa Western beat Seward County for third, and Trinity Valley overtook Tyler for fifth.

Mineral Area outside hitter Katie Duncan attacks Laramie County blockers Jazzy Espinoza (10) and Kasandra Sturges (6) as libero Shelby Meyer covers the net in game one of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area outside hitter Katie Duncan attacks Laramie County blockers Jazzy Espinoza (10) and Kasandra Sturges (6) as libero Shelby Meyer covers the net in game one of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area sophomore Ainslee Finch (6) receives a Laramie County serve during game four of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area sophomore Ainslee Finch (6) receives a Laramie County serve during game four of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area freshman Sydni Basler extends her arm to save a deflected shot from Laramie County during game two of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area freshman Sydni Basler extends her arm to save a deflected shot from Laramie County during game two of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area sophomore hitter Isidora Stojovic (15) swings against Laramie County defenders Jazzy Espinoza (10) and Payton Stack during game two of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area sophomore hitter Isidora Stojovic (15) swings against Laramie County defenders Jazzy Espinoza (10) and Payton Stack during game two of the NJCAA volleyball tournament ninth-place match on Saturday morning in Hutchinson, Kan.

Mineral Area volleyball players and coaches shake hands and exchange high fives following their four-game loss to Laramie County (Wyo.) at the NJCAA tournament on Saturday in Hutchinson, Kan. The Cardinals finished their season 10th in the nation and 29-5 overall.

Mineral Area volleyball players and coaches shake hands and exchange high fives following their four-game loss to Laramie County (Wyo.) at the NJCAA tournament on Saturday in Hutchinson, Kan. The Cardinals finished their season 10th in the nation and 29-5 overall.

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