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News: Zelenovic leads Lee past Morningside in pool play

SIOUX CITY -- Marija Zelenovic loved her first time playing under the bright lights of Tyson Events Center.

It just took she and the rest of Lee's volleyball team a little while to play like it.

Zelenovic hammered 15 kills and Lee bounced back from a frustrating set with one of its best of the year, rallying past Morningside 23-25, 25-9, 25-21, 25-18 on Tuesday night in an NAIA Volleyball Championship pool play opener.

"The crowd, the lights and the atmosphere -- it all makes you play better," Zelenovic said.

Arlene Ferreria and Irene Ojukwu had five blocks apiece and Ferreria scooped 20 digs to help the No. 3 Lady Flames (31-2) win their 25th straight match -- though it wasn't as easy as some might have thought.

"We really didn't feel like we started getting a rhythm until about the middle of the first game," said Lee head coach Andrea Hudson, whose Lady Flames have been NAIA semifinalists the past two seasons. "I knew that at that point, we were probably getting into the flow."

Maggie Vondrak led the Mustangs (26-7) with 13 kills. Kaeli Austin and Riley Callan each added nine, Monica Iverson dished out 34 assists and Darcy Christensen had 21 digs.

Morningside jumped out to a 17-9 lead and held on to win a surprise set, punctuated by Iverson's ace serve for the final point.

"We haven't played for about three weeks, so I think we were a little fired up," the Mustangs' first-year coach Sara Horn said.

"We came out on fire against a really good team," she added. "We came out so high, we were going to let down."

The Lady Flames had zero attacking errors and hit a sizzling .588 to win the second set in convincing fashion.

They never looked back behind the 6-foot-2 Zelenovic. The Novi Sad, Serbia, native showed why she's the Southern States Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year by finishing with a .609 attack rating.

"It felt like very time she swung, she got a kill," Horn said. "She was the first player listed on our scouting report. We knew she was going to give us trouble."

Horn even called a late timeout with her squad trailing 22-17 in the fourth set, but it only delayed the inevitable. Zelenovic slammed home her 14th and 15th kills, then teamed up with Ojukwu to block the match's final point.

"We just have to stay focused the rest of the way, and we'll keep winning," Zelenovic said.

Morningside's minus-.115 hitting percentage did little to help the Mustangs' cause in the second set.

Set 3 was a little closer. Morningside's Vondrak hammered down the tying point at 20, but Lee put the Mustangs away on two errors, an Ojukwu kill and a pair of blocks by Christa Hutchison.

Still, this was quite an NAIA tournament debut for Horn. In her first year at Morningside's helm, the former all-Big 12 hitter from the University of Nebraska helped turn the Mustangs into the best team in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

Morningside would've earned the automatic hosting bid anyway, but punched its own ticket to Tyson by winning the GPAC tournament. The Mustangs also won the regular season title in a league they'd been picked to finish eighth.

They turned a few more heads on Friday night.

"This is the highest seed in our pool," said Horn, referring to Lee. "Does a 4-seed beat a No. 1 seed very often? No they don't."

"But we battled back-and-forth with the top team in the pool," she added, "and we feel like we can get the next two."

In today's second day of pool play, the Mustangs will face No. 10 Southern Oregon following Lee's match with No. 14 Vanguard (Calif.), which starts at 5:45 p.m. on Court 1.

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