Kearney used its superior size and athleticism to outgun Norfolk in straight sets on Tuesday 25-21, 28-26, 25-19 in Heartland Athletic Conference action at the Norfolk Senior High gym.

In the first set, the Panthers trailed by as many as seven points early but scratched and clawed their way back into it. Anden Baumann's service ace tied it at 20.

Kearney coach Jessica Day called timeout and her Bearcats responded by scoring five of the next six points for the win.

The Panthers looked to even things up in the second set and Erin Schwanebeck's kill began a 4-0 run to put the maroon and white up 13-9. Kearney countered by scoring five of the next six points — including two Adi Wood service aces — to knot it up at 14.

Later, another Schwanebeck kill had the Panthers in front 19-16 before the Bearcats went on a 7-0 run to lead 23-19.

Norfolk followed that with a four-point run of its own. Karly Kalin's service ace had it tied at 23. The two sides then traded the next six points.

With the score knotted at 26, Norfolk freshman Tessa Gall rifled a kill attempt down the left sideline. But the line judge ruled it wide by what may have been a fraction of an inch.

That gave Kearney a 27-26 lead and seconds later, Aspen Rusher's kill put the Bearcats up 2-0 en route to the sweep.

“We really wanted it,” Baumann said. “But we just weren't able to hold onto the lead that we had, so that's something we're really going to have to work on.”

Norfolk coach Katie Wright-Oswald said her team had plenty of chances to put away the second set. “We talked about we want to make sure that we're on the gas the whole time,” she said. “We started to get a little more comfortable, and we can't play that way. We still have to play with a sense of urgency, to go after the win.”

Day said if Norfolk had won that pivotal second set, the match could have turned out completely different. “Volleyball is a weird game of momentum like that,” she said. “I was happy that we were able to hang on and show a little bit of grit and tenacity there, and I really think that helped and carried over into the third set for us.”

The Bearcats opened that third set by scoring eight of the first 10 points and never led by fewer than four points the rest of the way.

Even in defeat, Wright-Oswald said she was proud of how her team responded to a weekend tournament in Lincoln in which the Panthers finished with a 1-5 record against some of the best teams in the state.

She said there were plenty of positives. “Our defense tonight was probably the best defense I have ever seen these girls play,” she said. “They're not going to let a ball drop without making sure there's a body hitting the floor.”

The Bearcats' Rusher led both teams in kills with 14. Her teammate, Lily Novacek, added 11. Setter Lucy Bartee filled up the stat sheet with 35 set assists, three service aces and four kills — all by dunking the ball over the net on fake set attempts.

For the Panthers, Schwanebeck, Ali Sovereign and Jalen Hoffman finished the night with seven kills apiece. Sovereign also served up four aces and had a pair of solo blocks. Baumann added 27 set assists.

The Panthers are now 12-12 and will have to shake off the loss quickly as they play their final home match of the season on Thursday against Lincoln East.

Kearney defeats Norfolk 25-21, 28-26, 25-19

KHS (16-13): Adi Wood 3s, 3a; Sidney Province 8k, 1b; Ally Vavra 1k; Aspen Rusher 14k, 2a; Lily Novacek 11k, 1b; Lucy Bartee 4k, 35s, 3a; Macy Fuller 6k, 1b.

NHS (12-12): Tessa Gall 3k; Ali Sovereign 7k, 1s, 4a, 2b; Karly Kalin 4k, 1a, 1b; Erin Schwanebeck 7k, 1a; Jordyn Schommer 2k; Anden Baumann 1k, 27s, 2a; Jalen Hoffman 7k, 1a.

k = kills, s = set assists, a = service aces, b = solo blocks

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