By ZACH BOND
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Northern Colorado volleyball squad looks like it's ready to meet, then exceed, some of the lofty expectations the coaching staff and others set for it.
The Bears took home the Belmont Invitational title after sweeping both Belmont and Alabama A&M on Saturday. For the tournament, the Bears dropped just one game -- and that was after taking a commanding 2-0 lead over TCU on Friday.
The Bears were rewarded for their strong play throughout the tournament with senior Marissa Hughes (Huntington Beach, Calif) being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Both Tambre Haddock (Longmont, Colo.) and Kelley Arnold (Berthoud, Colo.) joined Hughes on the All-Tournament squad.
In the first match of the day, a 3-0 sweep over the tournament-hosts, Belmont, the Bears gutted out a gritty effort that could truly be described a team victory. Only two Bears, Haddock and Alyssa Wilson, finished the match with double-digit kills, yet the team was able to grind out a 25-19, 25-19, 25-18 victory.
"I thought for the most part we battled this morning," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Oates said. "We really battled defensively and that was the key to the match. (Belmont) really had a hard time scoring on us.
"The offense continues to get better as we're starting to get a little bit more of a rhythm there, but I do think we passed well and we continue to play great defense."
Northern Colorado used some staunch defense to frustrate the Bruins (1-2) all morning.
Haddock led the team with her second-straight double-double to start the season. The sophomore outside hitter finished with team-highs in both kills (11) and digs (17).
Wilson (Clinton, Okla.) finished the morning match with 10 kills on a very efficient .588 hitting percentage.
With star senior Kelley Arnold not feeling well and missing the match, the Bears did a good job of spreading the wealth. Nine players ended up picking up at least one kill over the match.
The second match of the day, and the Bears' final one in Nashville, was their most dominant of the tournament.
Northern Colorado swept Alabama A&M (0-3) with the margin of victory increasing each game -- culminating with a 25-10 win in the final game. The Bears won the first two games 25-21 and 25-12.
After sitting out the morning match, Arnold came back with a vengeance as she led the Bears with 13 kills on .579 hitting. The senior also had five digs and 2.5 total blocks.
As a team, the Bears' offense was running on all cylinders as they finished off the Bulldogs with .358 hitting. Hughes was a big reason for the offensive explosion as her 35 assists consistently put her lethal hitters in good position.
"Our offense definitely improved in the second match today," Oates said. "We were more efficient than we have been in our first two matches. Once we settled in a little bit, we weren't so high-air and we were able to really take control."
As in its win over TCU last night, Northern Colorado was excellent in the service game -- coming up with seven more aces against the Bulldogs. For the tournament, the Bears racked up 20 service aces.
With the first road trip under their belt, the Bears will get to come home and enjoy the support of their fans for quite some time. The next time the team will have to hit the road will be Big Sky play on Sept. 21.
For now, though, the Bears are undoubtedly focused on the annual Hampton Inn & Suites Northern Colorado Classic. They kick off the Classic at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 31, against Oklahoma, their second Big 12 opponent of the season.