Northwest volleyball got to showcase its talents on the big stage as the Bearcats participated in the MIAA Tournament Nov. 21-22 at Hy-Vee Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Bearcats came into the tournament as the No. 4 seed and were paired against the resilient No. 5 Missouri Western Griffons. Both regular-season matchups saw Northwest outlasting the Griffons in five sets.
Junior outside hitter Hallie Sidney wanted to put the Griffons away early and helped her team by recording her 17th double-double of the season with 10 kills and 12 digs. Junior middle blocker Morgan Lewis revved up the Bearcat offense with 11 kills and hit .435.
Northwest’s offensive power led to a .267 hitting percentage, which was the best against Missouri Western this season for the ’Cats. The energy of the Bearcats propelled them to three straight-set wins by scores of 25-12, 25-18, 27-25. This also tallied the fifth consecutive win over Missouri Western, the last loss coming in 2017.
The win against Missouri Western allowed the Bearcats to advance to the second round of the MIAA tournament, a feat that the program awaited 26 years for.
The hard work the players put in this season, coach Amy Woerth said, gave way to getting over the first-round slump.
“It’s been a long time from the standpoint of us getting over this hump,” Woerth said. “I was really proud of the stage that we were on, that we were able to play at the level that I know we can play at.”
The celebration was short and sweet for Northwest, as it had to quickly turn its attention to the next foe, the No. 1 Nebraska-Kearney Lopers Nov. 22. Both regular-season matchups saw Northwest falling short to the Lopers in four sets.
After trailing 5-0 in the first set, Northwest fought back vigorously and built a set point lead at 24-23. However, the Lopers tallied the next two points to squeeze out a 26-24 triumph.
After Northwest dropped the first set, the Lopers kept their foot on the pedal and showed why they’re the No. 2 team in the nation. Nebraska-Kearney had 15 kills and a mere two errors, all while hitting at .382. This lead to an easy 25-10 set win for the Lopers.
Woerth saw the second set as the ultimate downfall for her Bearcat squad.
“We had a couple more errors than they did, but that second set statistically hurt us,” Woerth said. “If you take out that second set, which they got us in rotation, and add up the three other sets, we were neck and neck when it came to the stats.”
Northwest knew the season was on the line, and Woerth knew the game plan had to be reconsidered. The Bearcats changed into a 6-2 rotation and threw off the Lopers, limiting Kearney to a .034 hitting percentage. The rotation change saw a positive response, and the Bearcats took the third set 25-23.
In the end, the ’Cats had too many unforced errors that led to Loper points, and Nebraska-Kearney had a better offensive efficiency to win the match by set scores of 26-24, 25-10, 23-25, 25-21.
Coming into the 2019 season, the Bearcats had four initial goals. They won 20 games, posted a winning record at home (6-4) and got past the first round of the MIAA Tournament.
They fell short of winning the postseason tournament, however, which led them to not making regionals. While they couldn’t complete all four goals, Woerth doesn’t see this season as a disappointment.
“I feel like we did a lot of things we haven’t done, and I still feel like there are a lot of great things you can take from our season,” Woerth said. “We’re three out of four on our goals, and that is a successful season when using the metrics.”
Three teams from the MIAA received bids to the NCAA Tournament, leaving Northwest wishing there was a fourth. This is the second year in a row that Northwest will finish fourth in the conference.
When asked how close Northwest is to surpassing teams that include Washburn, Central Missouri and Nebraska-Kearney, Woerth said. She is hoping that comes sooner than later.
“For us, it’s just getting our heads wrapped around Kearney and Washburn and splitting the series and not getting swept,” Woerth said. “We’re close to being better than them. I just think a group of individuals needs to put all these goals in front of them, and I think it’s right there for us to do. The future is really bright for us as we move forward.”
Northwest players did not go unnoticed for their hard work and effort. Sidney became the 22nd Bearcat volleyball player to earn first-team all-MIAA honors. She led the MIAA in kills (420) and kills per set (4.08). Throughout the season, Sidney racked up five MIAA hitter of the week selections.
Junior setter Maddy Ahrens was awarded second-team honors after leading the Bearcats in assists (1,015) and service aces (24) and also ranks No. 4 in the MIAA in assists per set (10.25). After this season, Ahrens ranks No. 6 in Northwest history with 2,573 career assists. Ahrens captured the MIAA Specialist of the Week award four times.
Lewis was named a second-team all-MIAA recipient. Lewis ranks second on the team in blocks (81) and kills (304). Sophomore middle hitter Bethany Elkins earned honorable mention all-MIAA honors along with sophomore libero Hannah Koechl and sophomore middle hitter Rachel Sturdevant.
As the season came to a close, Northwest had an overall record of 21-9 (.700) with winning records for away games (7-4), home games and neutral-site games (8-1). They finished ranked No. 21 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings.
Northwest will return 13 out of the 17 members on the roster. Woerth said the offseason will be a crucial turning for the Bearcats.
“The earlier we can have the goals of a 20-win season and winning the postseason tournament in front of them will drive them every single day,” Woerth said. “We need to get better at individual skills. We will tackle that a lot, the ability to be more athletic and explosive. I’m looking forward to working with them without having any wins or losses on their shoulders.”