(Photo Courtesy: Bradley Widding)
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (UCA) - No. 1 Central Arkansas earned its second consecutive bid to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament after it held off a feisty No. 2 Northwestern State squad, 25-19, 25-20, 25-13, 25-14, 15-12 in the Southland Conference volleyball championship match at the Dugan Wellness Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Northwestern State got off to a fast start taking a five point lead, forcing Sugar Bears Head Coach David McFatrich to call an early timeout in the first set. The Lady Demons kept the pressure on the Sugar Bears throughout the set but Central Arkansas would respond with a 6-0 run that cut Northwestern's lead to one (17-16). Northwestern's Ashley Elrod's, the conference freshman of the year, service ace late in the set gave the Lady Demons a four point lead (23-19). Keelie Arneson led the defense with 11 digs in the set while Mackenzie Neely recorded four kills to help the Lady Demons win the set, 25-19. Northwestern had three blocks and held UCA to a .100 hitting percentage.
Northwestern State was in the lead for majority of the second set and held a five point lead (18-13) following two blocks from the Lady Demons. Central Arkansas came storming back after a 4-0 run that propelled Northwestern State co-head coach Stephanie Hernesman to call for time. The Lady Demons continued to be the aggressor as they pushed the lead to five (24-19) after a kill by Vanessa Coleman. Northwestern's Emily Johnson had six assists while Arneson collected five digs for the Lady Demons.
For the first time this season, Central Arkansas lost two sets to a Southland team as the Lady Demons took the second set 25-20 to lead 2-0 in the match. UCA's Marissa Collins, the conference player and setter of the year, paced the Sugar Bears as she tallied eight assists and four digs in the set.
In the third set, Central Arkansas held a 6-5 lead before play was stopped shortly as UCA's Collins and Alicia Dittrich collided going for a dig. Both players would eventually walk off the court and play resumed. The momentum switched after the delay and the Sugar Bears seemed to find their groove. UCA went on a 9-2 run later in the set to take a 10 point lead (22-12) that led the Lady Demons to call a timeout. The Sugar Bears went on a 3-0 run to win their first set of the match, 25-13. UCA's offense went through Collins, who had 11 assists while Heather Schnars collected four kills. Central Arkansas' offense came alive as they had a .524 hitting percentage in the third.
Central Arkansas jumped out to a 9-3 lead to start the fourth set and later pushed the lead to eight. The Sugar Bears kept the gas on the pedal as they extended their lead to 10 (20-10) after Schnars' fourth service ace of the match. UCA was carried by its defense as they held Northwestern to a .260 hitting percentage to take the fourth set 25-14 and tie the match at 2-2. The Sugar Bears got some help from Paige Gantar and Evie Singleton as they both collected four digs in the set.
The fifth set saw both teams go back and forth before UCA took a three point lead (12-9) early that forced the Lady Demons to call a timeout. Central Arkansas went on another run to take the fifth and final set 15-12 to win the match. The Sugar Bears played in only their second five-set match of the season. The Sugar Bears had four players in double digits in digs and had a total of 12 team blocks.
Central Arkansas' Collins had a double-double 47 assists and 19 digs to lead the Sugar Bears. Schnars finished with 16 kills and 12 digs while Singleton came up big with 10 kills. Arneson had 34 digs for the Lady Demons while Johnson and Natalie Jaegar both recorded double-digits in assists with 21 and 20, respectively.
Central Arkansas will await its opponent when the 64-team field is announced at 8:30 p.m., on ESPNU on Sunday, Dec. 1 for the NCAA Tournament.