CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Freshman outside hitter Veronica Valdez collected a team-high 13 kills in Eastern New Mexico University’s five-game Lone Star Conference South Division volleyball loss to Abilene Christian on Thursday night at Greyhound Arena.
By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Abilene Christian appeared on its way to a three-game sweep Thursday night, then suddenly found itself fighting for its life.
Eastern New Mexico University took the Wildcats to a fifth gave before the visitors righted their ship, pulling away to a 30-23, 30-17, 28-30, 25-30, 15-7 Lone Star Conference South Division victory at Greyhound Arena.
The Wildcats (7-7, 3-1 South) erased an early deficit in the first game, but were unable to do so in games 3 and 4 as the Zias (3-15, 0-2), who have lost eight in a row and 13 of 14, roared back.
“Eastern is a place that we always expect to be extremely difficult to win,” Wildcats coach Kelly Mock said. “It’s always a little nerve-racking.”
Senior outside hitter Abbie Lowry had 20 kills and junior middle blocker Lauren Loene added 17 for Abilene Christian, which scored the first five points in the fifth game and never let the Zias get closer than two after that.
Freshman outside hitter Veronica Valdez notched 13 kills and two block solos while junior outside hitter Vanessa Wilcox compiled 10 kills and six blocks for the Zias.
ENMU, playing without leading hitters Jessie Macknicki (knee) and Megan Weitz (ankle), put up a game fight. The Zias ran out to an 11-4 lead in the first game before Abilene Christian rallied back, moving ahead for good 15-14 on a kill by Liz Snoddy.
Wildcats freshman setter Ijeoma Moronu blocked Wilcox on game point.
Abilene Christian went on a 15-5 run to break a 7-7 tie in the second game, then led 19-12 in the third game before the tide turned.
“I think we were just tired of not fighting,” first-year Zias coach Kim Falkenhagen said. “I was glad to get to the fifth game. I wasn’t sure we could get there.”
The Zias pulled even 20-20 and 22-22 before taking the lead in Game 3 when Wilcox was able to tip a bad set for a kill. They built the lead to 27-22 and held on, getting game point on a kill by Valdez.
“We started making some errors on crucial plays, and we had a hard time getting the momentum back,” Mock said.
ENMU scored the first three points of the fourth game and never relinquished the lead as the Wildcats committed numerous errors to stop potential runs. The Zias got the game-clinching point came on an ace by sophomore libero Caitlin Murphy that was misplayed by Abilene Christian.
“Both teams have inexperienced players, but I think we saw both teams mature tonight,” Mock said. “Our biggest struggle is with consistency. We’ve got two seniors and a junior on the court most of the time, and everyone else is a freshman.”
The Zias will try again to end their slide on Saturday when they host a 2 p.m. division match against Angelo State.
“It’s hard to stay motivated when you lose, but we saw tonight that we can fight,” Falkenhagen said. “That makes it a little easier to turn things around.”