By Jared Fields, Sports Editor
After winning a team-record 31 matches in a row, the Wildcats consecutive streak came to a halt in the regional final Nov. 20 against the No. 1 team in the region and nation, Nebraska-Kearney.
The Lopers won in three games, 30-24, 30-19, and 30-22, to improve to an overall record of 36-1 and advance to the Elite Eight, which will be in Kearney beginning Thursday through Saturday. The Wildcats finish the year with a 31-4 record.
Four Wildcats were named to the all-tournament team after the final match in Kearney: seniors Amanda Slate, Michelle Bernhardt and Lindsey Martin and sophomore Liz Snoddy.
The three seniors also earned first-team all-Southwest Region by the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association. It is the second year in a row Slate has earned the honor, and the first time for Bernhardt and Martin.
With the talent that ACU had, the Lopers were still too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
“It’s a good step for our program, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” head coach Brek Horn said after her team’s loss. “They have the experience that we don’t have at the national tournament, and that showed today.”
That experience comes from advancing to the Elite Eight for the third year in a row after beating the Wildcats. The Lopers also boast a squad full of players at or near the 6-foot-tall mark. That size is something Horn hasn’t faced all year.
“We haven’t played a squad this year that has the size that they have,” Horn said. “It makes it hard to get it by that block. They’re a good team, and they’re going to do well at the national championship.”
Bernhardt also pointed out the level of play shown by the Lopers.
“Every single point we had to play our best,” Bernhardt said. “That’s something that we didn’t have to do a lot in conference.”
To get to the match against Kearney, the Wildcats had to win two matches. ACU had not won a game, or a match, in the NCAA post-season tournament until its 3-0 win against Central Oklahoma in the first round.
The match against Central Oklahoma was the second meeting in a row of the two teams; ACU beat the Bronchos a week earlier in the LSC Tournament championship match in Moody Coliseum.
In the second round match, the Wildcats faced Metropolitan State in an attempt to avenge an early season loss in the Tampa Classic. The loss to kept the Wildcats at No. 3 in the regional rankings throughout the year.
“We’ve been wanting to play them here; there was a hunger,” middle blocker Amanda Slate said after the Metro State match. “We wanted revenge, and that’s what we got.”
The Wildcats got their revenge against Metro State in the form of a 30-23, 30-24, 30-25 win.
“I thought we were ready to play, and we had Metro nailed,” Horn said after the 3-0 victory.
Slate said that before the match, the coaches told them to think back to the Premier Challenge, which they won.
“That’s the level that we were stepping up to,” Slate said. “When we play teams like Metro or these other teams, we play up a level.”
Slate and teammates played on a higher level as the Wildcats hit .341 on the way to a three game sweep over Metro State.
However, ACU could not find that level against the Lopers. Kearney’s defense held ACU to a .094 hitting percentage. The Wildcats made 27 attack errors, and the Lopers took advantage of Wildcat mistakes.
“It was a lack of consistency, unforced errors,” Horn said about the team’s offense against Kearney.
Despite the Wildcats shortcomings against the No. 1 team in the nation, Michelle Bernhardt said it best, “We had a great year; there’s a lot of good things to hold our heads up about.”