With its season on the line, the University of Dubuque found itself having to dig out of arguably its worst run of the year — in rival territory no less.
The Spartans had dropped 10 straight points spanning Sets 4 and 5 at Loras’ Athletic & Wellness Center after once holding a 2 sets to 0 lead on the crosstown Duhawks. These teams had just played eight days earlier. This time, much more was on the line — a berth to Saturday’s American Rivers Conference championship game.
And in a match where momentum swung dramatically in both directions, the final swing fell for Dubuque.
Back-to-back kills by middle Shauna McAleer sent the Spartans to a thrilling five-set victory over Loras on Thursday in the A-R-C volleyball semifinals as UD clinched the tiebraking set, 16-14.
Given all that was at stake, Spartan players couldn’t remember a match that was more heart-pounding than this one. The Duhawks were rolling, winning the final seven points of Set 4 for a 25-21 win, then staking a 3-0 lead to start the fifth set. Loras carried the lead to the switch, 8-6, when Dubuque began to re-emerge.
Grace Hintze had a kill, followed by back-to-back Duhawk errors and the Spartans had their first lead since midway through the fourth set. Back-to-back Kara Wright kills gave UD an 11-9 lead, before Loras rallied to tie Set 5 at 13-all.
“This definitely tops them all for sure,” said Wright.
The Spartans had swept the Duhawks (19-9) in their previous meeting on Oct. 30 at the Stoltz Center. UD knew Thursday’s match was going to be a much tougher fight at Loras’ house.
“Last week, beating them in three, we knew it wasn’t going to be that easy tonight. They’re a great team,” Wright said. “We expected a five-set match for sure. Winning the first two, we didn’t expect that. But we finished and that’s all that matters.”
Rylee Andresen’s kill put the Spartans to match point, 14-13, but a Dubuque error on the next play gave serve back to the Duhawks.
McAleer answered with a tip-kill from the middle, again putting the Spartans to match point and then capped the match with another well placed tip over the Loras block for the game-winner. This sent her teammates storming the court and brought a raucous road Dubuque crowd to its feet.
“Honestly, I was just trying to keep the ball in play and whatever happened happened,” said McAleer, who finished with eight kills and two solo blocks for the Spartans. “It was super nerve-wracking, but I knew my team was behind my back so I just went for it.”
Dubuque (21-10) advanced to Saturday’s match in Waverly, Iowa, to play top-seeded Wartburg in a rematch of last year’s conference title game. The Knights ousted Nebraska Wesleyan in four sets in Thursday’s other A-R-C semifinal.
As for the Key City contest, both squads found themselves enduring the highest highs and the lowest lows. The Spartans dominated the first two sets, 25-18 and 25-14, before the Duhawks stormed back with a 25-22 win in Set 3 and their major run to end Set 4.
Darby Hawtrey finished with 16 kills and Wright added 14 to lead the Spartans while teammates Kate Messino finished with a match-high 52 assists and Grace Strawser picked up 34 digs and three aces. Abby Algeyer led Loras with 14 kills, while Kelly Boge finished with 11 kills and four blocks and Jessalyn Roling added 46 assists.
Boge and Roling are both seniors who graduated from Dubuque Wahlert. Thursday’s match capped sensational volleyball careers for both within the city.
“They’ve been playing together for a long time, and I’m so proud of them and the dedication that they’ve given to this program” said Loras coach Jenna Ness, who was named the A-R-C coach of the year on Thursday. “I was very lucky that both of them decided to stay in Dubuque and work hard for us for the last four years.”