HILLSBORO, Mo. – Pam Zuluaga has a dangerous array of available options each time an accurate pass finds her hands as the undisputed floor general for the Mineral Area volleyball team.
Although the versatile sophomore setter has a top priority of distributing the ball to powerful hitters, she still relishes the chance to throw a wrinkle of deception at opposing defenses.
“I enjoy it most whenever I fake to set somewhere, and the middle on the other side says, ‘Oh, man!’ I can see that (reaction) and that’s the best feeling ever,” Zuluaga said.
Zuluaga totaled 29 assists, 11 digs and five kills – including a key spike that presented match point – and the Lady Cardinals continued their scintillating quest for a perfect regular season Tuesday night.
Mineral Area clinched the top seed for the upcoming Region 16 tournament with one match to spare by sweeping Jefferson for the second time this season 25-19, 25-19, 25-21.
Jane Kickham returned to playing every rotation, and finished with a team-high 11 kills plus 10 digs while freshman libero Shelby Meyer provided 15 digs in the victory.
A 25-0 record marks the longest win streak of any program in the history of MAC athletics after men’s basketball started 24-0 last winter. This latest triumph also ensured an automatic bye to the Region 16 final on Oct. 28.
“That’s important, because it’s one less game that we have to play,” Zuluaga said. “It’s not easy to come back from playing the night before and be at the same level. You’re going to be tired.”
Jefferson (6-11) suffered its seventh loss in eight matches, but not before fighting to turn a seven-point deficit into a late lead during game three.
Urte Niemantatite and Kayla Juenger each recorded nine kills for the Vikings, who grabbed a 15-13 edge when Ali Hanger served an ace behind a Juenger kill.
Kickham tipped past a double block to even the score, and Mineral Area regained a 20-18 lead when two consecutive attacks by Jefferson landed wide following her overhead clear from a tight angle.
Melissa Avendano countered a block by Vikings middle Kymbra Kirby, and Zuluaga alertly sent a bump set from Meyer through a crowd on a potential broken play to make it 23-21.
Cailey Bracken struck cross-court on match point for her eighth kill to equal Raylyn Dodd, who landed four swings and a solo block in a dominant stretch as MAC initially surged ahead 9-2 in game three.
“We’re going to have people coming for us all the time, especially being ranked eighth in the nation right now,” Bracken said. “That team did not want to lose 3-0 to us tonight.”
Kickham carried the early offense along the right side, notching seven kills during a first set that otherwise had plenty of erratic moments.
Jefferson sent down a couple of MAC passing miscues to jump ahead 9-6, but Mineral Area settled in following a timeout. An emphatic block from Dodd and Kickham gave the Lady Cardinals a 13-11 lead after Bracken executed a sliding dig to her right.
Imani Williamson crushed a pair of line spikes to keep the Vikings within 18-17, but Kickham sparked a pivotal 4-0 run with two more kills before Anica Popadic tipped an overpass down on game point.
Game two reached a competitive 12-12 score without either squad gaining more than two points of separation. But solid serving created two free balls that Mineral Area capitalized on.
Zuluaga served an ace at 20-16, and Ainslee Finch crashed to the floor while keeping the ensuing rally alive. Bracken and Dodd tacked on additional kills to create a two-game advantage.
The unbeaten record has overcome a bit of adversity as lingering injuries have limited Bracken, Kickham and outside hitter Emily Eaton at times over the past two months.
“On my high school and club teams, we had injuries and couldn’t come back from them,” Bracken said. “This year, on this team there are multiple people who can play my position or also the middle position. It’s nice having girls who can step in for us.”
Sarah Champman made four blocks, and Neimantatite totaled nine digs for Jefferson.
The Lady Cardinals have seven matches remaining in the regular season, including four over a span of two days starting Friday in their home tournament.
“I think our team has a lot of talent, and everyone can step in and do an amazing job,” Zuluaga said. “We all have the same mentality and same goal. We want to go to nationals again.”