Up 24-17 in the third set, Northwest volleyball broke the huddle to fans rising to their feet. While fans were littered throughout the stands due to social distancing, their cheers gave the feeling of a packed Bearcat Arena.
The ball was propped up by Bearcat sophomore setter Alyssa Rezac, leaving junior Kelsey Havel to run up from the left side, obtaining her tenth, and most important, kill of the match.
As the scoreboard tallied the 25th and final point for the ’Cats, the 175 fans in attendance witnessed history. The No. 18 Bearcats (12-2 overall, 6-2 MIAA North) swept No. 10 Nebraska-Kearney April 10 for Northwest’s first win over the Lopers (13-3) since Oct. 27, 1990.
“I felt one of the most euphoric feelings I have ever felt,” Northwest senior Morgan Lewis said about beating Kearney. “I decided that win or lose, I was going to cry after the game no matter what since it was my last time in Bearcat Arena. I am so happy that I got to share tears of joy with my entire team.”
It was an electric afternoon for the Bearcats’ offense, hitting at 21.8% and seeing three players capture double-digit kills, including Lewis (14), freshman Olivia Dir (12) and Havel.
“We were on a high level, for sure. I think it starts in practice,” Northwest coach Amy Woerth said. “From the standpoint of how hard we practice, we’re really getting after it. Playing at a high level, working at a high level, it is fun seeing it translate.”
Rezac continued to show why she’s one of the best setters in the MIAA, putting her teammates in a position to punish the opposing defense. She ended the contest with 44 assists, surpassing her career high set in 2019.
Rezac wasn’t finished, however, as she accumulated season-high numbers with six digs and a block, proving to be the engine that kept the offense running.
“She helps the team get in a groove by just being calm and steady. She’s a type of leader that doesn’t go high or low; she keeps a really solid consistency and a good head on her shoulders,” Woerth said about Rezac. “The thing that you also need to be able to do as a setter is consistently put the ball where it needs to go, and she’s able to do that at a high level.”
The Bearcats’ defense fed off of the energy given by the offense, limiting the Lopers to 12.4% hitting on the match while tallying 31 kills. The ’Cats responded well to the Lopers’ hitters by having 47 total digs.
The victory over Kearney solidified the Bearcats as the No. 2 seed in the North Division and the third-best conference record. Northwest will carry a six-game win streak into the MIAA Tournament, which starts April 16 in Topeka, Kansas.
“It gave us such a sense of confidence. If we can beat UNK in three sets, we can take on anyone in the conference,” Lewis said. “It will still be a battle no matter what. This conference can change in the blink of an eye, but I have full confidence my team can perform at that high of a level and beat anyone.”
Due to COVID-19, the MIAA Tournament is being conducted differently compared to previous seasons.
This year, the tournament is being played in Lee Arena on the campus of Washburn. The nontraditional spring season brought forth North and South divisions, and each team had eight matches count toward their divisional record. These matches played a role in determining each team’s spot in the tournament bracket.
Northwest drew Washburn (14-4 overall, 5-3 MIAA North) in the first round. The two teams have met twice this season, with the Bearcats grabbing the first victory in four sets Feb. 24, and the Ichabods securing the victory the second time around March 20, also in four sets.
“From the standpoint of the tournament and how it’s set up, the draw that we got was Washburn, you know, it is what it is,” Woerth said. “It’s a tough year and a COVID year to try and rank people based on being in a north and south pod, when we have a lot more nationally ranked teams on our side. There’s just really no way to make it equal or fair with the other division.”
Having a tough first-round opponent is not an ideal situation for any team, but the Bearcats are taking this opportunity as a learning experience. The coaching staff is preparing the players like it’s a regional matchup.
“This whole weekend is like we’re in regionals. When we get to regionals in the future here, we’re going to have to play three really good teams — top-ranked teams in the nation,” Woerth said. “Why not start with Washburn?”
Not only will Northwest have to put forth a great amount of energy to keep the Ichabods at bay, but they also have to do so on Washburn’s home court. The last time the ’Cats won in Lee Arena against the Ichabods was Oct. 13, 2018.
Besides trying to force Washburn to feel uncomfortable in an environment they’re accustomed to, the Bearcats will have a couple of players to focus on.
Senior outside hitter Genna Berg, who was a recipient of the 2019 MIAA Co-Player of the Year, has been electric lately. She padded the stat sheet in her last match against Missouri Southern April 7 with 13 kills, 12 digs and five assists.
“You have to slow her down at the net when it comes to blocking, so we need to get a good block up in front of her, slow her down and neutralize some of her attacks,” Woerth said. “You know she’s going to get some kills. We have to live with that and be able to come back on our side and have anyone on the court get kills.”
All-MIAA first team selection setter Allison Sadler, who didn’t play in the first contest against the Bearcats, will be another impact player. In her last match against Missouri Southern, Sadler had 32 assists and seven digs.
The game plan, similarly to last time, will be to hit to Sadler as much as possible in the back row. By isolating and putting more workload on the setter, Sadler won’t be able to control the Ichabods’ offense as much as she’d like to.
Northwest’s dominant play all season has made this team gel and grow together at an exceptional rate, giving the Bearcats an opportunity to make a deep postseason run.
“It’s nice to see that our hard work can amount to something,” Lewis said. “Winning at any time is enough to push me to work hard, but having it lead up to a big tournament means even more, where we can finally showcase everything we have spent the past years working for.”
If the Bearcats secure a win in the first round, they could meet either the South Division No.1 seed Central Missouri or the winner between Emporia State and Missouri Western April 17.
Until then, the ’Cats have a tough opponent waiting for them in Washburn.
“It’s going to be a dog fight,” Woerth said. “I think it’s just going to be competitive as all get out. I think there will be moments where a team will take over, but then the other team is going to push back. Definitely looking for a dog fight.”