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PARK HILLS – The Mineral Area College volleyball team coasted to a pair of straight-set victories that likely reaped minimal attention when opening its regular season back on August 26.

Those matches against McHenry County and Illinois Valley at the Kankakee Tournament marked the competitive debut for a promising group of incoming freshmen.

Outside hitter Cailey Bracken arguably shined the brightest of all Lady Cardinals that evening after sending 23 of 34 total attacks to the floor.

Her role as a premier offensive option was immediately confirmed, and MAC began establishing the foundation for an extremely rewarding ride.

“Cailey has been a very dedicated player on the court and off. She leads by example every day at practice, and helps others to achieve their goals,” Mineral Area head coach Tim Copeland said. “Cailey has set high goals for herself and hates to lose. She pushes herself and others around her to be their best by giving 100 percent.”

The Lady Cardinals finished with a 27-9 record that included a 12-0 start, and reached the final day of the NJCAA Division I national tournament in just their second all-time appearance after claiming their second Region 16 championship.

“The coaches pushed us because they believed that we were good enough to make it to nationals,” said Bracken. “Our training most days was hard, but definitely worth it. Going to the national tournament was the goal for everyone from the very beginning of the season.”

Mineral Area equaled its previous 10th-place result by the 2011 squad, but the elevated profile of its program over the past decade had never translated into individual awards.

That drought finally ended on Tuesday when Bracken received honorable mention to become the first MAC volleyball athlete ever named to the NJCAA All-American list.

“It makes me feel great to know I’m one of the best at my level. I know it’s not first or second team All-American, but still, getting the recognition that I need to move on to the next level is awesome,” she said. “The team and I have the best support system from our fans, coaches, and teammates.”

The 5-foot-11 graduate of DuBourg High School in St. Louis and Physical Therapy major compiled 407 kills during a stellar freshman campaign, including a season-high 22 in a four-game victory over Butler. She pounded 20 more in a national tourney triumph over Wallace State.

Her defensive work was equally superb while occupying all six rotations. Bracken tabulated 381 digs in 36 contests, also a team high for the Lady Cardinals.

“As a coach, Cailey is the type of player that you want on your team and despise playing against,” MAC assistant coach and former player Chelsey Politte said. “During practice, Cailey was the hardest worker, every day. She continually pushed herself and others.

“Throughout the year, she made some amazing plays that were extremely difficult to make, but did so with ease and athleticism. She played with such fire and was always so exciting to watch.”

Mineral Area is already poised for another big season in 2017. Five freshmen who were permanent fixtures in the lineup could return.

The NJCAA selected 30 players for All-American honors. Second Team outside hitter Kayla Juenger of Jefferson was the only other Region 16 representative.

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

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