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Wheeling University drops regional volleyball championship to Gannon

WHEELING — With a trip to the Elite Eight in Tampa, Florida on the line, the Gannon Golden Knights swept Wheeling University 3-0 in the Atlantic Regional Volleyball Championship Saturday night.

The Cardinals, who hosted the tournament at the McDonough Center all week, scored first in all three sets, but Gannon used big runs and excellent play at the net to win 25-18, 25-16 and 25-18. The matchup was an exact rematch from the 2019 Regional Championship, which Gannon also won.

Gannon out-blocked the Cardinals 21-13 Saturday and out-hit them .336 to .124.

“They’re a great blocking team and we knew that,” Wheeling coach Christy Benner said. “We were trying to find the right combinations, but we just always seemed to get stuck. Those matchups are hard for us and how we’re built.”

Benner was forced to call a timeout early in the set when Gannon used a 5-0 run to build a 5-2 lead.

“In those early timeouts, it’s really more just making (the team) sit down and focus on what they’re doing,” Benner said. “It’s more of taking a breath and focusing on us and figuring out what we need to do to stop their run.”

That worked in the first set, as Wheeling came back to tie it 6-6, but Gannon was unrelenting all night and responded with another 5-0 run to go up 11-5. They continued to increase their lead and took the set 25-18.

“In the first set, we had way too many mistakes,” Benner said. “I can handle some hitting errors, but we had some communication errors and some things that we just don’t really have so I think that was a big difference.”

The second set started just like the first when Wheeling went up 2-0 and then Gannon unleashed a big run to take command. With Wheeling Leading 4-3, Gannon put together a dominant 14-2 run to take a 17-7 lead and cruised to a relatively easy 25-16 win.

The third set stayed close for longer, with Gannon only leading 14-12 at one point, but the Golden Knights again stayed a step ahead of the Cardinals and won 25-18.

“We talked about limiting mistakes and hitting when you get an opportunity with an open spot,” Benner said. “We had places we wanted to go on the floor and things that we wanted to do but either we didn’t get the right set or they had a better block. We were on our heels a bit and weren’t able to get to the places that would make them get out of system.”

Senior Lauren Sampson led Gannon with 19 kills and 21 points. Classmate Ashley Kerestes was second with 14 kills and also led the team with five blocks.

“It’s amazing, it’s what you work for your entire career,” Kerestes said. “A lot of hard work comes into this moment and I think being able to pull out a win just speaks volumes to everything you’ve gone through.”

“Today was sort of a microcosm of our week here as a whole,” Gannon coach Matt Darling added. “A little bit of a low start … and it was really our seniors who said that we were not going to go out like this. Once we got rolling, it was on and I think, in a small way, that’s what happened again tonight.”

Other key contributors for Gannon were Ashley McClung (10 kills, three blocks), Maggie Greenfield (five kills, five blocks) Ashley Beyers (44 assists, four blocks) and Emma Hall (18 digs.

Wheeling was led by freshman Maddy Winters’s six kills and five blocks. Allonda Watkins also had seven kills, Karly Niesen had 23 assists and Audrey Francis had 20 digs.

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