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Apr. 3—HIGH POINT — When the ball routinely hit the court at the end of a failed Gardner-Webb return attempt, the High Point University women’s volleyball team celebrated something not routine.

The point was the final in a 25-18, 25-16, 25-13 sweep by the Panthers and put the bow on a perfect 16-0 regular season, all in the Big South Conference. HPU, which clinched the league championship and a NCAA berth a week earlier, then began a celebration that included receiving the championship trophy from athletic director Dan Hauser and cutting the Millis Center volleyball net.

The undefeated conference run is the second ever for the Panthers in the Big South. The other was in 2017.

“It’s a reward for all we’ve had to go through, with COVID-19 and the protocols,” HPU head coach Ryan Meek said.

“To get in all 16 matches was awesome in itself. To go undefeated, it shows how much the girls sacrificed to fight through to get here. I think at the beginning of the year I think we knew we were going to be talented enough. But there was so much up in the air, it’s like that claw game where you pick stuff up. COVID could just come and take you.

“We had to be ready to adapt and our girls stayed ready at all times. To win a championship like this is just an awesome reward for sacrifices and limited social life.”

HPU was taken to five sets just twice, both times against Charleston Southern.

“The big thing in going 16-0 is consistency, and we had that,” Meek said. “We didn’t have that match where we stubbed our toe or where we just didn’t show up and got beat. Even in moments of adversity we came through. I can’t say enough about them.”

The match sweep was the 11th of the season. It was also second in two days against the Runnin’ Bulldogs but more difficult than the one on Thursday.

This time, the Runnin’ Bulldogs stayed close in the first set, trailing by two at 15-13 before HPU won 10 of the last 15 points, seven on kills by five players.

In the second set, Gardner-Webb roared to a 7-0 lead. HPU adjusted on defense and got going on offense to go in front for good at 11-10 and put the match away again by scoring 10 of the last 13 points.

In the third set, HPU bolted to a 6-0 lead. Gardner-Webb got within one at 7-6 but HPU won the next six points and wasn’t threatened the rest of the way.

“They played better but we responded to that,” Meek said. “I don’t know if we did it right away but over the course of the match, we picked up our level to take care of business. . .The best teams are player driven and responsible. When we got down 7-0 (in the second set), it wasn’t me yelling and screaming or some magical adjustment. We just played better.”

Annie Sullivan led the HPU attack with 18 kills. In the second set, she helped the comeback at the start of the second set and helped HPU pull away later. In the third set, she had three kills as HPU went up 6-0 and three later as HPU won the last eight points.

“She’s alway been physical, tall, long and hits the ball hard,” Meek said. “The adjustment she’s made this year is she’s patient. As a freshman, if she got blocked or dug, you’d see her retreat a little bit. This year, she’s more willing to make the right play and not force things.”

Gabrielle Idlebird popped nine kills. Kaley Rammelsberg and Madison Smith each added eight. Sopheea Mink had six.

Maria Higgins passed 21 assists and Mackenzi Thornburg had 17. Abby Bottomley came up with 19 digs. Smith, Miggins and Thornton had seven.

“In the first set, we didn’t serve very tough, and in the second and third sets we served tougher,” Meek said. “That made playing defense easier, and a couple of our middle backs made some plays and Abby plays defense all the time. We’re tough to score against when that’s happening.”

The Panthers will find out their NCAA opponent Sunday during a selection show to be televised by ESPNU beginning at 4 p.m.

The 48-team tournament will be held at Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska. The first round is scheduled April 14 with the second round the next day.

HPU is ranked fifth in the NCAA volleyball RPI for games through March 28 but the Panthers are not listed in the latest AVCA Coaches Top 25.

gsmith@hpenews.com — 336-888-3518 — @HPEgreer

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