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Popova hits .842 as Thomas More volleyball sweeps Pitt-Bradford in opening round of NCAA Tournament

NKyTribune staff

HUNTINGDON, Pa. — After cruising to a 25-17, 25-18, 25-9 win over Pitt-Bradford in the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament on Friday, the Thomas More volleyball team can now focus on the opponent that eliminated the Saints from last year’s postseason — Christopher Newport.

That’s the opposition awaiting Thomas More in Saturday’s regional semifinal. A year ago, Christopher Newport outlasted Thomas More in a five-set thriller in the opening round of the NCAA Division III Tournament in Atlanta. Those two squads earned a rematch by dispatching first-round foes, with Christopher Newport (26-5) defeating Bethany (W.Va.) in four sets prior to Thomas More’s sweep against Pitt-Bradford on Friday.

Julia Popova records a block against Pitt-Bradford’s Alexandra Segura on Friday during Thomas More’s victory in the NCAA Division III Tournament. (Photo by J.D. Cavrich)

Julia Popova led Thomas More (32-3) with 16 kills and an eye-popping .842 hitting percentage. The freshman middle hitter from Beechwood High School converted the 16 kills in 19 attempts with no errors. The Saints attacked at a torrid .324 clip for the match as setter Jenna Fessler dished out 39 assists.

“Julia had an outstanding match,” said Fessler, who is also a Beechwood graduate. “We were connecting on everything in the middle. We knew coming into the match we had a height advantage that we wanted to exploit. Middle/setter connections are something we work on every single day in practice, and for Julia to be so efficient was more than we could have asked for.”

Pitt-Bradford (20-13) had won the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference championship last week, knocking off top-seeded Penn State-Behrend on the road to claim the automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The Panthers, however, were unable to contain the duo of Popova and Jenna Mummert (eight kills, .467 hitting percentage) in the middle as Thomas More found multiple openings in the Pitt-Bradford net defense.

Emily Mohs added 13 kills for Thomas More, while Jessica Ginn anchored the defense with 19 digs. The Saints limited Pitt-Bradford to a .010 hitting percentage and held the Panthers to just two kills in the final set.

Thomas More is ranked No. 7 nationally in the latest NCAA Division III poll, while Christopher Newport is No. 24. The Captains won the Capital Athletic Conference championship last week, outlasting Mary Washington in five sets by scores of 26-24, 25-17, 22-25, 21-25, 15-13.

This marks the first time since 2014 that Thomas More has advanced past the opening round of the NCAA Division III Tournament.

The opening round of the NCAA regional is being hosted by Juniata (Pa.) at the Memorial Gymnasium. The regional championship match is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, with the winner earning a trip to the NCAA Division III national quarterfinals in Pittsburgh next weekend.

(Information compiled from Thomas More and staff reports)

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