By TYLER ELLYSON
DENVER – With tears in her eyes, University of Nebraska at Kearney senior Julianne Jackson managed to crack a smile during the press conference following Saturday night’s NCAA Division II women’s volleyball championship.
When a reporter asked Rick Squiers where this year’s team ranks in his 21 seasons as UNK’s head coach, Jackson offered a playful answer.
“Say No. 1,” she whispered across the table.
The outside hitter from Bonner Springs, Kansas, might be right.
Although the season didn’t end the way they hoped it would, the Lopers had a lot to be proud of as they walked off the court at the Auraria Event Center in Denver.
“It’s definitely a special year,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t be more excited and more proud to be part of a team like this.”
“These girls made it fun every day at practice and every day off the court.”
UNK, which won the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) regular-season and tournament titles, reached the national championship match for the second time in program history. The battle between the No. 2 Lopers and No. 1 Cal State San Bernardino Coyotes was the first-ever Division II title match featuring two undefeated volleyball teams.
With a four-set victory, San Bernardino (33-0) became just the third Division II school to finish a season unbeaten, while UNK (38-1) joined the 2005 Lopers as national runners-up.
Squiers called this year’s team one of the best in UNK Athletics history.
“This is a season to remember, that’s for sure,” he said.
The longtime UNK head coach referred to this group as the “epitome of a team” – 23 players who did everything the right way and reached their potential.
“I think we’ll point to this team for a long, long time about this is how you get the most out of yourself,” Squiers said. “This is how a group of seniors leads a team. This is how a group sticks together for a whole year.”
“It’ll be a lot of really good memories.”
Junior middle hitter Anna Squiers agreed with her coach and father.
The Lopers started the season with a goal of advancing past the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament, something they hadn’t done since 2012. They shattered those expectations.
“I’m just speechless looking back at this year,” Anna Squiers said. “I couldn’t be happier for us and I couldn’t be more proud.”
“This year is going to hold a special place in my heart,” she added.
Anna Squiers, her sister Maddie and Jackson were named All-Americans this season by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Maddie Squiers, a junior setter, and Jackson, the co-player of the year in the MIAA, also received the honor from the Division II Conference Commissioners Association.
Jackson, the Squiers sisters and junior outside hitter Mary Katherine Wolfe were selected to the all-tournament team in Denver.
For Jackson and three other seniors – Emma Benton, Josie Cox and Mackenzie Puckett – Saturday’s match was the final time they’ll put on a UNK volleyball uniform.
“We’ll miss our seniors,” said Rick Squiers, describing the group as “outstanding people” and “great competitors.”
Puckett, Cox and Jackson helped lead UNK to a 139-10 record over the past four seasons, with Benton joining the rotation in 2017 after transferring from Emporia State University and redshirting in 2016.
This season and her UNK career mean a lot to Benton, an outside hitter and serving specialist from Grand Island.
“We might not have pulled it off in the end, but we still made it here,” she said Saturday night. “We’re still that good.”
“This season we went all-out, every game and every point. We loved the game and loved each other. It was a fun ride.”