CARTERVILLE, Ill. – The Mineral Area College volleyball team reached its desired destination again this season, and followed the perfect route to get there.
A magical string of victories continued on Saturday night with the most prominent to date, as the Lady Cardinals secured a second consecutive trip to the NJCAA Tournament.
They achieved that outcome with undeniable focus while demolishing host John A. Logan 25-15, 25-8, 25-12 in a District K playoff match between adjacent region champions.
“I love this team. We’ve worked so hard to get here,” freshman libero Shelby Meyer said. “This was our goal from the beginning of the season, and we finally accomplished it. So this is awesome.”
Mineral Area (34-0), ranked eighth in the current national poll, must wait for the official bracket to be unveiled before learning its seed and first-round opponent within the 16-team field.
The meantime offers an opportunity to heal some aches and bruises, and perhaps reflect on a massive feat that has often been made to look easy.
“It’s a very special occasion. It’s school history and that’s wonderful to be a part of,” sophomore outside hitter Jane Kickham said. “We couldn’t be happier about it.”
Kickham totaled 10 kills plus seven digs, and middle hitter Raylyn Dodd made five blocks for a Mineral Area squad that imposed its will at the net from the opening serve.
Sophomore setter Pam Zuluaga compiled 28 assists, and served MAC to a 7-0 start in a harbinger of scoring blitzes to come after Dodd rejected the Lady Vols on consecutive rallies.
“I was just hoping to bring my best every day at practice to make myself better,” said Dodd regarding her arrival as a freshman. “I think the other girls do that every day, too.”
Zuluaga dished a back-set to Kickham for another smash before Cailey Bracken stretched forward to dig a finesse attack from the Logan side, leading to a kill from Anica Popadic.
Meyer anchored another solid showing for the Mineral Area back row with 17 digs while Zuluaga added 14 and Bracken had eight more.
The early action was so lopsided that the Lady Cardinals built an 18-4 advantage without allowing a kill or committing an attacking error.
John A. Logan (19-11) scored its first four points on missed serves. Emily Burkitt collected five kills, and Ahnie Hoff chipped in four kills, two blocks and two aces for the Lady Vols.
“I was expecting a little more out of [my team] tonight, to play fast and be aggressive,” said 12th-year Mineral Area coach Tim Copeland. “Once you come out fast, the opponent thinks, ‘Holy cow! This team is for real. We’ll have a hard time beating this team.’ Our blocking made a quick statement, and Jane’s hitting made another quick statement. I think that kind of helped us get going.”
Mineral Area bolted to a 10-3 lead in game two as Logan misfired on back-to-back swings, then closed by taking 13 of the last 14 points.
Lady Vols libero Carolyn Phoenix made a dazzling pancake dig to help her team clear, but Zuluaga sent the ensuing second touch back over the net for a point before Logan could organize.
Dodd and Bracken combined for three straight booming blocks moments later, and the Lady Cardinals enjoyed a 20-7 cushion as Amy Leftridge served an 8-0 spurt.
Three Kickham kills powered a 9-2 start in game three before Logan responded on a putaway by Kayla Grady to draw within 12-9.
Melissa Avendano notched two of her seven kills to restore momentum to MAC, and Kickham capped the victory by handcuffing the Lady Vols with two aces and six straight points.
“I started that topspin jump serve in high school, and never really used it because it wasn’t that good,” said Kickham, who had to patch a knee after a floor burn opened during warm-up drills. “One would hit the tape and go over, and the next would go off the back wall. So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll work on it.’
“Last year, I didn’t use it because my back was kind of an issue for me. But this year, since I’m healthier and we’ve had some bigger leads in games, I’m growing more confident in it.”
The Lady Cardinals have dropped only five of their 107 sets played – easily the fewest in the nation. The level of competition will only escalate, however, once they arrive next week in Hutchinson, Kan.
“Going 34-0 was never in my mind, because it’s something that usually would never be done,” Copeland said. “I’m very proud of these girls for what they accomplished and how they fought their way through it this year.”
“Four of our sophomores made it to nationals last year, and they’re the leaders on this team,” he added. “Then you add the freshmen who bring winning attitudes, and that helps out the whole group.”
Mineral Area finished 10th in two previous NJCAA tourney appearances, including last year in Casper, Wyo. A first-round victory this time would guarantee a higher result.
If the first 10 weeks of the season are any indication, the Lady Cardinals are ready for the challenge.
“We for sure stay relaxed. We never go into a game thinking that we’re going to lose,” Bracken said. “We just come in with the confidence, thinking that we’re No. 1 right now and are going to beat any team that steps in our way.”