By ZACH BOND
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Bears' volleyball squad got its much-anticipated season off on the right foot Friday evening with a convincing 3-1 victory over Big 12 foe TCU inside the Curb Event Center.
The match was also the opener to the Belmont Invitational – which also includes Belmont and Alabama A&M.
The Bears (1-0) parlayed a decisive advantage in the service game, along with a strong defensive performance, into a 25-21, 25-23, 18-25, 25-20 win over the Horned Frogs (0-1).
"I'm very pleased with our defense," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Oates said. "I thought this was a big team/defense win. Our serving, blocking and back-row defense really kept us in the match. I thought we played scrappy at times and that's what you need in your first match.
"We weren't as efficient as I'd like us to be on offense, but that's the least of my concerns for the first match of the year. I still think our offense will be our strength once we get going into the season."
Senior Kelley Arnold (Berthoud, Colo.) paced Northern Colorado with a team-high 15 kills on .293 hitting. Her defense was just as stellar as her offense, as she notched 19 digs to give her the 26th double-double of her career. Arnold was especially dominant as the game wore on – getting just three kills in the first game but continuing to improve as the match went along.
Marissa Hughes (Huntington Beach, Calif.), another senior, was as outstanding as Arnold -- dishing out 42 assists on the evening. Already the school's Division I leader in assists and three-time All-Big Sky Second Team member, Hughes has her eyes set on some all-time records and loftier goals as a senior.
The Bears also flashed a weapon that was not really part of their arsenal last season: the service game. They held an 8-1 advantage over TCU in service aces. Those eight aces matched the Bears' season-high total from last year.
"This might have been one of the best serving matches we will have all season," Oates said. "We really had a good match in that aspect. We were able to keep (TCU) off the net, stay aggressive from the service-line and stay in system for the most part."
Johnson (Ft. Collins, Colo.) also got her season off to a fine start as she prepares to take over Northern Colorado's libero position from last season's Big Sky Libero of the Year Amando Arterburn. Johnson finished the match with a career-high 22 digs to go along with her two aces and two assists.
The first game was neck-and-neck until late when the Bears, up 21-20, were able to use a 4-1 run to take it.
The second game was much different; as Northern Colorado used a 14-6 run to take a commanding 24-16 hold on the game. TCU refused to go away though, as the Frogs battled back to within one point of the Bears before freshman Tambre Haddock (Longmont, Colo.) slammed the door shut with a kill.
After dropping the third game, the Bears regained their focus and ended the match on an emphatic note – using a 7-1 run in the middle of the game to take control.
Haddock and fellow sophomore Brianna Strong (Mount Vernon, Iowa) both enjoyed strong season-debuts, too. Haddock finished with her first-career double-double after notching 13 kills and 12 digs.
Strong came up huge early – racking up four kills in the first set. She finished with five kills and five block-assists.
Although any win over a Big 12 opponent has a nice sound to it, the Bears know their work in Nashville isn't quite done, as both Belmont and Alabama A&M await tomorrow. Northern Colorado will take on the tournament-hosts at 9 a.m. before wrapping up the day with Alabama A&M at 2:30 p.m.
Video for the match against Belmont will be available through the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Network.