The College of St. Mary seniors were given one more opportunity to play a home volleyball match Nov. 23.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, the Flames rolled to a straight-set win in the NAIA tournament opening-round match. That win sends the Flames to Sioux City, where pool-play matches for the 32-team field begin on Tuesday.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Flames have reached the national tournament. And for seniors like libero Payton Robley, last Saturday’s win represented the progress the program has made during their four years at the school.

“It’s been really awesome this year to see everything come together,” said Robley, one of the team’s six seniors. “(Nationals) has been a goal, obviously, since I’ve been a freshman. It just feels like all our hard work in season and the offseason has finally come together.”

The Flames have won nearly as many matches this season (25) as they did in the previous three years combined (29). When Robley was a freshman, the Flames went 7-17, then won 8 and 14 matches the past two years. This is the program’s first winning season since 2014.

“Just to see how giddy they are, how excited they are, how happy they are that it’s turned around so quickly — to see that is worth more than any win,” coach Rick Pruett said. “(On campus) these girls are celebrities right now. They’ve earned it from their work.”

Pruett took over as St. Mary’s coach three years ago. The GPAC is a difficult conference to make headway in — five league teams will be at nationals — but Pruett felt this could be a season where the Flames took a step forward.

They started 15-3 and earned a national ranking before losing five straight league matches to end September. Still, by the end of the regular season, the Flames earned the No. 8 seed in the GPAC tournament and a chance to face Northwestern, the NAIA’s top-ranked team, in the quarterfinals.

That ended up being a season-changing match. On Nov. 9, the Flames beat Northwestern in four sets, then they followed that with another road win over Midland in the semifinals before losing to eighth-ranked Jamestown in the final.

That run was enough to propel the Flames into the national tournament with an at-large bid.

“After we beat Northwestern at their school, it gave us a lot of confidence,” said Robley, who has more than 1,600 career digs for St. Mary. “After the win over Northwestern, everyone believed we could be in the top 20 in the country.”

Another element in the Flames’ 25-win season has been their success in matches that go the distance. They are 8-1 in five-set matches, with five of those wins in conference play.

“I feel five-setters show how mentally tough a team is, how much passion you have,” said senior Amber Anderson, an Omaha Benson graduate who was named a first-team all-conference outside hitter.

Anderson and Robley, an East Butler graduate, are part of the Flames’ rotation made up of area players. The team’s setters, Natalie Patten and Alexis Petry, are from Council Bluffs; Omaha Westside’s Makenna Freeman leads the team in kills with 3.08 per set; and Elizabeth Dlouhy (Tekamah-Herman) and Kamryn Willman (GICC) each have more than 300 kills.

“I think they’re battle-tested and they’ll perform just fine at nationals,” Pruett said. “At this time of year, you have to worry about what you’re doing, not what the other team is doing. Go play your best. ... If we play our best, we could certainly win a couple of matches in pool play and get into the single-elimination tournament.”

Two other Nebraska programs also are in the national tournament:

» Bellevue: The Bruins (27-8) are heading to Sioux City for the third time in the past four years. They are led by sophomore setter Olivia Galas, an Omaha Gross graduate who was named the North Star conference player of the year as she averaged 10.84 assists per set and had 304 digs. Millard North’s Madi Evans leads the team in digs with 454. The top two hitters are Sierra Athen (446 kills) and Andrea Carson (310 kills). Carson is the team’s only upperclassman.

» Concordia: The Bulldogs (23-6) are playing at the national tournament for the first time after a third-place finish in the GPAC. The program was 9-19 in 2017, but coach Ben Boldt has helped turn its fortunes. Camryn Opfer, a Seward graduate, was named the GPAC freshman of the year as she had 280 kills and 272 digs. Emmie Noyd (346), Kara Stark (249) and Kalee Wiltfong (240) also have at least 240 kills, while setter Tara Callahan is 10th in the NAIA in assists at 10.71 per set.

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