Morningside upset 2014 National Champion Park in its pool play opener at the NAIA Volleyball National Championship.

Callie Alberico

Morgan Whitehead

After a three-year absence, Morningside made its return to the NAIA Volleyball National Championship tournament a memorable one when the unranked Mustangs rallied from a 2-1 deficit to upset No. 7 Park University 25-23, 17-25, 19-25, 25-21, 16-14 in Tuesday’s pool play action at Sioux City’s Tyson Events Center/Gateway Arena.

The Mustangs improved their record to 20-13 to achieve their first 20-win seasons since a 26-9 finish in 2011. Park, just two years removed from winning a NAIA National Championship, lost for only the third time this season to fall to 32-3.

Morningside will resume play in its four-team pool with a 7 p.m. match against 10th-ranked Lourdes University on Wednesday before a 5 p.m. Thursday contest against No. 23 Corban University. The top two teams from each pool will advance to a 16-time single-elimination tournament bracket slated for Friday and Saturday.

Park entered the tournament leading the nation with a .304 hitting percentage, while the Mustangs were fourth in the nation with an average of 2.60 blocks per set. The Mustangs’ block played a pivotal role in reducing the effectiveness of the Pirates’ attack. Morningside finished the match with 11.5 blocks and outhit the Pirates with a .183 hitting percentage compared to a .176 rate for Park.

The Mustangs overcame a huge performance by Park’s Wendy Romero, who entered the contest second in the nation with an average of 5.05 kills per set and ninth in the country with 66 ace serves. Romero, a two-time junior college first-team All-American and a NAIA first-team All-American and the NAIA National Tournament MVP during the Pirates’ 2014 NAIA National Championship run, amassed 34 kills and five ace serves. Romero, who helped lead Venezuela to the Beijing Olympics as a 16-year-old, had six kills and two ace serves in the fifth set. Park set Romero for a whopping 78 attack attempts to account for almost 43 percent of the team’s 182 swings on the night.

Jenn Buyert

Jessica Becker

Jenn Buyert and Ashley Vande Stouwe each pounded 12 kills to share Morningside honors and Jayde Bergmann joined them in double figures with 10 terminations. Brittni Olson just missed double figures with nine kills. The Mustangs’ most effective attacker, however, was sophomore outside hitter Morgan Whitehead, who may have played the match of her Morningside career. Whitehead slammed eight kills with no attack errors over the final three sets to finish with a match-high .533 hitting percentage for her highest attack rate of the season.

The Mustangs, who played a 6-2 offense throughout the season, surprised the Pirates with a different look by switching to a 5-1 featuring Callie Alberico, who dealt 51 assists and came up with a season’s high 21 digs to lead the Mustangs’ defensive court coverage.

The Mustangs had three other players amass double figure dig totals with 15 each from Nikki Oberfoell and Katie Kuck and 13 by Morgan Gourley. Jessica Becker added eight digs, including one of the Mustangs’ biggest saves of the night when she dug up a Romero spike on a rally that ended on a kill by Buyert for the match winner.

Buyert and Olson, who represented the Mustangs on this season’s All-GPAC Second Team, led the Mustangs’ defensive effort at the net. Buyert finished with one solo block and six block assists, while Olson contributed seven block assists.

After playing to a 2-2 standoff after the first four sets, the teams battled through a tight deciding fifth set where no more than one point separated the two opponents until an Emma Gerber kill gave the Mustangs a 9-7 lead. The Mustangs opened another two-point cushion when Olson and Bergmann combined to block the Pirates’ Paloma Bacellar for an 11-9 advantage.

Park came right back to take a 12-11 lead after back-to-back ace serves by Romero. The Mustangs tied the score at 12-12 on a kill by Olson from out of the middle before a back row dink by Romero put the Pirates back up at 13-12.

Morningside tied the score at 13-13 when a Whitehead kill overpowered the Pirates’ attempt at a block. The Mustangs took a 15-14 lead on a kill by Olson before a Buyert hit from the outside found the floor for the match winner.

Box Score