HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Three minutes were all that the Mineral Area volleyball team had to collectively recover after failing three times to put Iowa Western away during a taxing fourth set.
With frayed emotions in some cases nearing the breaking point, the Lady Cardinals persevered just enough to register the signature win of its program’s history on a national stage.
Defense sparked a defiant stand in the abbreviated fifth game as sixth-seeded Mineral Area stunned No. 2 Iowa Western 25-22, 20-25, 25-16, 29-31, 16-14 on Friday at the NJCAA Tournament.
Cailey Bracken recorded 19 kills and 17 digs, and provided a leadership presence in clutch situations that helped her earn all-America Honorable Mention as a freshman last fall.
She knocked down a calm spike from just inside the 10-foot line after Ainslee Finch made a stretching save on the back row, then smashed a hustling bump set from libero Shelby Meyer on the ensuing play after their squad faced a 13-11 deficit in game five.
A double block by Raylyn Dodd and Jane Kickham again brought MAC to within one point of a victory, but Iowa Western answered with a combo stuff by Irina Alekseeva and Morgan Bossler.
Bracken terminated the ensuing point from the right side, and Dodd blocked the next incoming attack before tipping down the resulting overpass to spark an exuberant celebration.
“We never give up. Each of us has such a big heart for this game, and we want to win,” Dodd said. “It’s just awesome to be part of a team that makes big plays the way that we do.”
Mineral Area (36-1) traveled to central Kansas hoping to improve upon a pair of 10th-place national results in recent years, and will face Polk State (Fla.) on Saturday in the season finale for fifth.
Melissa Avendano provided 13 kills while Anica Popdic, Kickham and Dodd each added 10 more to the triumph. Pam Zuluaga posted 47 assists with 19 digs, and Shelby Meyer had a team-high 21 digs.
The Lady Cardinals erased five-point deficits to win the opening and middle stanzas through a degree of resilience not required against inferior competition during their unbeaten regular season.
Mineral Area was also reeling from its quarterfinal loss to Southern Idaho that ended a school-record, 35-match win streak and dashed any hopes of capturing a national title.
“This morning was a rough one for us. We had a long talk for about 30 minutes, just saying that we didn’t bring our game or play like we were supposed to last night,” Bracken said. “But we still had a chance to finish higher than where we’re seeded, and that’s what we want to do.”
“Being positive is the No. 1 goal for this team. Even when we’re down, just pushing forward and thinking that we’ll get the next ball helps to make us all better in the end.”
Alekseeva recorded 19 kills and Caitlyn Cooper tallied five of her 18 kills in give five for Iowa Western (38-3), which fell to No. 7 seed Tyler (Texas) in the quarterfinal round on Thursday.
The Reivers converted their fifth potential game point to stay alive and ultimately carry a riveting fourth set that included 20 ties following an exchange of initial 4-0 runs.
Makayla Doyle won a tiebreaking joust for a 24-23 IWCC edge, but a service error negated that chance to close. Avendano then spiked an overpass to give Mineral Area a 25-24 lead.
Kickham jump-served an ace that trickled over the net a few points later, but Ali Verzani retaliated with a tying kill after teammate Emi Pua’a traded stellar digs with Meyer.
Mineral Area was poised to snap a 28-28 deadlock as an Iowa Western attack sailed long, but Zuluaga was called for making contact with the net to her astonishment.
Bracken saved another game point by powering around a double-block, but was stuffed by Bossier for the game-ending play at a tight angle.
Iowa Western brought momentum into game five, and rode four kills by Cooper and two more by Doyle to solid leads of 10-7 and 11-8.
However, Amy Leftridge served the Lady Cardinals even with help from solid back-row defense as the Reivers dropped the next points on errors.
The situation looked bleak once again for Mineral Area after Iowa Western capitalized on a free ball and covered tip to regain a 13-11 lead and move to the precipice of a win.
But that outcome never materialized as MAC claimed five of the last six points, using active defense and timely power from Bracken to ultimately prevail.
“Tipping wasn’t really an option during this game, because their defense was picking everything up,” Bracken said. “I knew that if I would just swing, I could maybe hit the ball off their hands.”
Popadic tallied seven blocks overall, and was responsible for the first pivotal momentum swing of the contest with booming rejections of three consecutive Iowa Western swings in game one.
Meyer handled two blistering attacks to help win a rally, and Dodd hammered a backset from Zuluaga while sliding to the right for a 23-20 lead.
The Reivers coughed up an earlier 12-7 advantage after Alekseeva found an offensive groove, but kept the Mineral Area on its heels to pull away in game two.
Cooper extended a 22-20 edge with a kill, and the Lady Cardinals misplayed two subsequent serves as an overpass spike squared the match at one set apiece.
Several unexpected delays only added to the anxiety throughout the action. Officials stopped play at least seven times to check the score or verify the legality of MAC substitutions.
Zuluaga was even issued a yellow card after reacting to a call during game two, and the chair referee further admonished Mineral Area after Kickham quietly disputed a line ruling.
The Lady Cardinals brushed off frustration with themselves by delivering their most dominant stretch of the night after falling into a sloppy 7-2 hole in game three.
“One way we stay calm is by remembering how we got here,” Finch said. “We didn’t get here by being flustered all the time or by screaming at each other and not being good teammates. We have to come together in stressful situations like that.”
Avendano notched four kills and Dodd added three blocks while digs from Meyer, Bracken and Zuluaga within a single exchange sparked a closing 12-4 run.