LINCOLN — All year, O’Neill St. Mary’s has leaned on a balanced attack and relied upon limiting its errors.
But Exeter-Milligan forced some of the latter at crucial times, and it made a difference.
Top-ranked St. Mary’s committed six errors in the deciding fifth set as the fifth-ranked Timberwolves captured the Class D-2 title 17-25, 25-22, 25-18, 23-25, 15-9 Saturday morning at the Devaney Center.
“We were serving tough,” Exeter-Milligan coach Darcy White said. “That was our whole game plan. They run a fast offense, so we needed to serve them tough. We were hoping to limit them to one option, maybe two, but if they had three options, that would be tough to stop.”
Sydney Hupp slammed a kill to cut the Cardinals’ deficit to 9-8 and force a Timberwolves timeout in the final set. Exeter-Milligan got the momentum back with a Samantha Horne kill, which started the match-deciding run. The Timberwolves scored five straight points, punctuated by a Horne ace. A St. Mary’s service error on match point ended it.
“We started slow today, like yesterday, and we never found a groove,” St. Mary’s coach McKenzie Connot said.
Exeter-Milligan got a match-high 25 kills by Hailey Luzum, while Marissa Howard added 16 and Hannah Beethe 11.
Hupp had a team-high 21 kills and two solo blocks, while Riley Sibbel added 15 kills and 10 digs for St. Mary’s.
The Cardinals looked like they would cruise into forcing a fifth set when they opened with an 8-1 run in the fourth down 2-1 in sets. But the Timberwolves battled back to force ties at 12-12, 13-13 and 14-14. St. Mary’s surged with six of the next seven points, starting when the ball bounced from Sibbel over the net, onto the shoulder of an E-M player and to the floor for a point. Tracy Chvala followed with an ace serve before another Sibbel kill, this one from the back row, made it 18-15.
After St. Mary’s took a 22-19 lead on a Hupp kill, four straight errors gave E-M new life with the lead at 23-22, until two Hupp kills around one by Chvala sent it to the fifth.
The Cardinals started the match as well as they could have hoped, scoring the first six points and forcing an E-M timeout. Emily Pongratz got things started with a kill and ace serve, and Hupp slammed a solo block for a 5-0 lead.
St. Mary’s took advantage of nine E-M hitting errors in the opening set, including one on set point. The Cardinals also exhibited their balance, with four kills from Pongratz and Hupp and three from Sibbel.
E-M surged ahead of St. Mary’s with an 8-3 run in set two that put the Timberwolves up 21-15. The Cardinals flew back, getting a Pongratz kill and a Taylor Colman ace along with three E-M errors, but two Howard kills helped the Timberwolves close out the set.
St. Mary’s had a trio of three-point leads early in set three, but E-M got a 7-1 run to take an 18-14 lead, keyed by three Beethe ace serves. After the Cardinals got to within 18-16 on a Chvala ace serve, E-M scored seven of the final nine points of the set.
“Our girls had a lot of fight,” Connot said. “These girls have a lot of heart for the game. Second place is still an honor. I’m proud of them and what they accomplished this season.”