By Shannon Heaton
For the Herald
CLINTON — Compared to last fall, the gap has narrowed between Ashford University's volleyball team and its southern neighbor and Midwest Collegiate Conference rival, St. Ambrose.
For two sets Tuesday night, the Saints proved that, building a six-point lead in the first set before eventually falling 25-21 and taking the second by an identical score.
After that, though, the Queen Bees proved that while the gap has narrowed, it's not closed completely, as St. Ambrose used Ashford's mistakes against the Saints to build sizable leads en route to 25-13 and 25-18 victories. The victory kept SAU unbeaten in MCC play at 4-0 (14-3) overall; Ashford (13-9 overall) fell to 2-2. The loss snapped a six-match winning streak for the Saints.
“We made a lot of mistakes, not just here or there, but three or four points in a row. We need to limit our mistakes, stay aggressive and hit around the ball,” Ashford coach Micah Cewe said. “It was really kind of sad to lose Game 1 after playing well for most of the game.”
Ashford led 19-13 in that one, but then Ambrose turned up its hitting pressure, led by the hitting of freshman Tori Matzen, who had a kill and pair of blocks during SAU's charge back into the game and eventual win. The Bees jumped to an 8-2 lead in the second game, but this time Ashford responded, behind the serving and hitting of Camanche’s Kelsey McCausland, along with key kills from Clinton’s Sarah Wenzel and Allison Uceda, taking the lead for good on a Hanna Bruns kill that made it 17-16, Saints.
“In that second set, they really pushed hard,” SAU coach Bruce Billingsley said. “Twice, we had a five-point or more lead, and we let them back into it. But Ashford is a much-improved team over last year.”
The Bees didn't allow Ashford much room to breathe in the third set, jumping to a 7-3 lead. From there, 7-3 became 11-5 and that became 15-10. But, try as the Saints would to make it a competitive set, 15-10 would be as close as it got, as the Bees kept applying the pressure, going on a 7-1 run that effectively clinched the set.
“Passing and staying aggressive at the net,” Cewe said of the things that got away from Ashford in the second half of the match. “Those were two things that we did really well in the second set, but we forgot to execute those in the third and fourth.”
Ashford kept serving aggressively throughout the match, but that was about the only thing that the Saints kept insisting on in terms of aggressiveness in their play.
“Those serves are chances we're going to have to take,” Cewe said of Ashford's serving, which resulted in six aces — two each from McCausland, Heather McCue and Uceda. “We want to get aces, but we know we'll have to take some mistakes. Getting better at serving is something we've focused on the last couple of years.”
Ambrose jumped to a quick lead again in the fourth set, leading 5-1, and although Ashford would come back to tie the set at 7-7 and 11-11, the Bees re-established control by taking advantage of Saints mistakes down the stretch.
“Our girls can still finish in the top two of the conference. We're still right there to finish in the top three, and we have a shot at taking second,” Cewe said. “We want to get some home games in the (MCC) tournament.”
ST. AMBROSE 25-21-25-25, ASHFORD 21-25-13-18
Ashford stats — Kills: Allison Uceda 12, Kelsay McCausland 10, Sara Wenzel 7, Kendra King 5, Hanna Bruns 4, Lisa LaMasse 4, Breelyn McMahon 1, Tara VanZuiden 1. Blocks: Bruns 2, McCausland 1, Uceda 1. Aces: McCausland 2, Heather McCue 2, Uceda 2. Assists: Whitney Miller 17, Liz Gbur 16, McMahon 1, VanZuiden 1, Bruns 1, Uceda 1, King 1. Digs: Miller 15, VanZuiden 9, Uceda 8, Gbur 8, Samantha Moller 4, King 3, Bruns 1, Muriel Miller 1, Sarah Wenzel 1. Records — Ashford 13-9 (2-2 M Midwest Collegiate Conference). Next — Ashford hosts invitational meet, 2 p.m. Friday.
By Shannon Heaton