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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney head volleyball coach Rick Squiers doesn’t need to do a lot of talking to explain the impact this year’s senior class had on his program.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Squiers said.
UNK has compiled a 130-15 record over the past four seasons, winning three Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) regular-season and conference tournament titles during that time. The Lopers are making their 20th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament, this time with a 33-2 mark and No. 3 national ranking.
“A lot of groups have come through here and been successful, and their numbers would stack up to just about any other class,” said Squiers, who is in his 20th season as UNK’s head coach.
What sets these four seniors apart, he said, is how they approach the game.
“They bought in from the very first day they got here,” Squiers said. “They’ve represented UNK to the highest degree. Coaching is a lot easier when you have upperclassmen who care about doing things the right way for the right reasons and care about their teammates.”
The seniors – setter Lindsey Smith, outside hitter Kendall Schroer, libero Ellie McDonnell and defensive specialist Morgan Stute – will tell you it’s their relationship off the court that helps fuel their success on it.
“We’re all very close,” said Smith, a native of Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. “We’ve definitely been through a lot in these four years. I think that’s made our bond a lot stronger.”
Smith, Stute, Schroer and teammate Julianne Jackson live together, and McDonnell is their neighbor.
Schroer said those friendships help ease the pressure that comes with being a Division II athlete.
“Honestly, it’s all about playing volleyball and having fun with my friends,” she said. “This is my stress reliever. This is where I have the most fun.”
Stute, whose Kearney Catholic team defeated Schroer and the Ogallala High School Indians in the 2013 Class C-1 state tournament, believes that connection is what makes this version of the Lopers so special.
“We have the best chemistry I think we’ve had in the last four years,” she said. “We’re all best friends off the court and I think that really makes a difference.”
There’s another attribute that’s also tied to this senior class – perseverance.
Schroer and McDonnell, a Papillion native, weren’t recruited by UNK during high school, and McDonnell began her collegiate career as a walk-on.
“They give me a bad time about that every once in a while,” Squiers joked.
All four seniors made an immediate impact as freshmen, with Stute and McDonnell appearing in all 36 matches, and continued to impress their coach over the years. They’ve sat out a combined eight matches over the past three seasons.
“That’s a credit to those four not letting anyone define what their limitations are and really grinding their way through an unbelievable college career,” Squiers said.
Smith, who has the fifth-most assists in UNK history, likes that mindset heading into Thursday’s NCAA tournament match against Harding University (25-7).
“We’re not always the biggest or even the most talented, but I think we fight really hard,” she said. “We have that experience of having to battle in a lot of tough games and dig out of holes. I think that experience and being able to rely on each other and trust each other in those tough situations puts us ahead of other people.”
McDonnell agrees, calling UNK’s selflessness its strength.
“Everyone on the team is really for the team,” said McDonnell, who set the school’s career digs record earlier this season. “No one goes out there to play just for themselves. Everyone is playing for each other.”
The Lopers, seeking their first NCAA tournament win since 2012, also have home-court advantage for the regional, which features seven of the top 10 nationally ranked teams, including two-time defending champion Concordia-St. Paul.
Playing at the Health and Sports Center, where UNK is 71-1 over the past four seasons, will provide a big boost for the team, according to Stute.
“The Health and Sports Center is basically magic for us,” the Kearney native said. “We thrive here and we love playing at home.”
Smith called the UNK fan base “unbelievable.”
“They really help make this place special,” she said. “It’s so much fun playing in front of a huge crowd every night. It just makes the game so much more exciting and gives you that added oomph to keep pushing, especially in these tough games.”
Squiers knows this senior class will be difficult to replace, but that’s not the focus right now.
They plan to have a little more fun together while trying to add one more number to the list of accomplishments – the school’s first national championship.
“This is such a good way to end my career at UNK,” Schroer said. “It doesn’t even feel real.”
NCAA TOURNAMENT MATCH
Top-seeded UNK faces No. 8 Harding University at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Health and Sports Center.
The eight-team Central Regional continues Friday and Saturday at UNK, with the winner advancing to the national quarterfinals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Honors: All-MIAA first team in 2018; Two-time All-MIAA second team; All-MIAA honorable mention; Three-time MIAA Scholar Athlete; Three-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll
Position: Outside hitter
Honors: All-MIAA first team in 2017; All-MIAA second team in 2018; Three-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll
Hometown: Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Honors: AVCA honorable mention All-American and All-Central Region in 2016; Three-time All-MIAA first team; Three-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll; Two-time MIAA Scholar Athlete; MIAA Excellence Award winner
Position: Defensive specialist
Honors: Two-time All-MIAA honorable mention; Two-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll; Two-time MIAA Scholar Athlete