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Two of the most successful UMD athletic programs are off to start tournament play this weekend, and it almost seems as though nothing can stop the Bulldogs from extending their remarkable success in Division II football or volleyball. The competition gets better every year, the balance of power in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference improves every year, and graduation takes its toll every season, but two things remain constant -- UMD wins in football and in volleyball.
The football team, 10-1 under Bob Nielson, is headed for an NCAA Super Region 3 quarterfinal at 10-1 Missouri Western State on Saturday at High Noon. A victory sends UMD to No. 2 seeded Henderson, which has a bye this weekend, for a semifinal game a week from Saturday.
The volleyball team, 18-2 in the NSIC and 27-3 overall under Jim Boos, is headed for Concordia of St. Paul for the first Northern Sun conference volleyball tournament, a large stepping stone toward the NCAAs. UMD is third seed and faces Winona State at noon Friday, and a victory puts the Bulldogs into a Saturday semifinal against the winner of No. 2 Southwest State vs. MSU-Mankato. Concordia is No. 1 seed and favored to reach the Sunday final from the other bracket.
Both Nielson and Boos have amazing records over the last decade or so.
Nielson was instantly successful when he took over the football program 15 years ago, and the Bulldogs were consistent contenders for the five years until he became athletic director and relinquished his coaching duties. UMD had some success without Nielson, but no longer was winning automatic. In his first year away from coaching, I made one of my better comments to Nielson, which was: “I’ll bet the new athletic director wishes he still had the old football coach.”
Things changed, and five years ago, when the football coaching job opened up, Nielson filled it with the best available candidate -- himself. That also happened to be the year that his recruiting class brought in eight freshmen who red-shirted, and are thus part of the 11 seniors on this year’s team. When those players celebrated Senior Day last Saturday at Malosky Stadium, and came away with a 49-31 victory over a stubborn Northern State outfit from Aberdeen, S.D., it was Nielson’s 100th coaching victory in 10 seasons at UMD.
“Those eight seniors who have been here five years have won 61 games,” said Nielson, preferring to talk about his players than his own mastery. I asked Bobif, by any chance, he had any idea how many games those players had lost, and Nielson hesitated a moment, and said, “...I could probably figure it out.”
Just as I thought. The master-coach was well-aware of his teams’ victories, but dismissed the few losses as disposable interruptions. That conversation was on my 9-11 a.m. KDAL 610 radio show, before last weekend’s Northern game. Doing the match means that five-year group now has 62 victories, and, for the record, six losses.
He didn’t even intend it as a self-congratulatory fact when I asked him if UMD had ever played Missouri Western State before. “We played them up here in 2007, and down there in 2008 in the playoffs,’ Nielson said. How did UMD do? “We lost up here in 2007, and we won down there in 2008.”
When I asked him about the loss at Missouri Western, Nielson said: “I wasn’t coaching in 2007.”
Of course. The biggest difference in those two years was the presence of Bob Nielson on the sideline. UMD lost the year before he took over, and when he did resume coaching, went 15-0 and won the school’s first national football title in 2008.
In volleyball, it seems time has flashed by even more swiftly. This is the 11th year of the Boos coaching regime, and after sweeping the University of Mary, the Bulldogs caught a break when powerful Concordia beat top-rated Southwest State on the final day, leaving UMD, Concordia and Southwest tied for the title. It was the seventh time UMD has won or shared the league championship in Boos’s 11 seasons. His first UMD team went 18-0 to win the league and 29-3 overall -- his best record until 2007-08, when the Bulldogs went 12-0 in the North Central Conference and 29-2 overall.
Incredibly, under Boos, UMD’s worst records, and the most losses ever by UMD, were the 23-9 of 2009-10 and the 26-9 of 2008-09. In both those seasons UMD was 15-5 in the NCC. Cumulatively, UMD has gone 157-24 in conference play, and 296-55 overall.
The amazing thing about this year’s UMD team is that Boos had to replace five seniors who graduated after last season, and while outstanding outside hitter Katie Lange was back as a junior, Boos admits he had no idea how good this season’s team could be. As it turned out, a huge victory over five-time defending national champion Concordia of St. Paul at midseason was ultimately pivotal in leaving UMD within reach of the league title until the finish. In the final match against Mary, UMD romped 25-3, 25-11, then had to work to subdue the Marauders 25-19. That final set allowed Boos to pull off a perfect finish -- with set and match point at hand, he was able to summon Kalli Lochner and Samantha Hertaus, the team’s only two seniors, to come to the bench and leave the game to appreciative cheers in tribute from the crowd.
This might be the first season in the last decade when both the UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams struggle to rebuild and reach the level of contention they have enjoyed in their Division I endeavors. Regardless, the performance of both the Bulldogs football and volleyball teams is a matter worthy of great pride for area sports fans.
OUT OF THE FOG
Chase Vogler didn’t really mean to turn the football team’s senior day into Chase Vogler Day, it just worked out that way. The Bulldogs found a blanket of fog over James Malosky Stadium Saturday afternoon, and it was a chilling, damp fog. If you were out in it, it never felt like rain, but there was so much moisture in the fog you were promptly drenched. On the field, every play looked like someone was running out of a surreal cover to emerge in sharp focus to the near side, or disappear into the blanket of fog to the far side.
Naturally, the coaches had a solid game plan prepared, but Vogler, in his fourth year as starting quarterback, has the green light to check off and call his own audible when the defense stacks up against the planned play. So he did, often. “We’d have a play called, and they had a defense set up so I’d check off and run,” said Vogler. “As the game went on, they didn’t change their defense much, so we didn’t change anything either.”
Vogler ran our of the fog, turned the corner, and raced away. He did it repeatedly, for scoring jaunts of 25, 12, 9, and 64 yards, and finally plunged in from the 1. The tally reads five touchdowns, and 224 yards rushing, a mere 12 yards from UMD’s all-time single-game record. UMD’s other weapons were clicking too, as freshman Logan Lauters gained 149 yards in 22 carries, and scored two touchdowns, and Austin Sikorski gained 102 yards on 15 carries. Vogler was only 4-11 passing for another 69 yards, but it was not a big day for passing. It WAS a big day for Chase Vogler.
“He’s a football player,” said Nielson. “What a way for him to play in his last game at home. He changed a number of plays at the line, and when he checks off, he loves to run that sweep.”
Vogler reflected on his five touchdowns and massive rushing performance, and said, “Our offensive line was great today. They were really clearing guys out.”
The performance, in the fog, was worth it when, one day later, UMD was selected as No. 6 seed, which pretty well assured that they will be on the road from now on. The only way UMD could wind up back at Malosky Stadium is by winning Saturday and winning at Henderson in the regional semifinals, while somebody ranked lower upsets undefeated MSU-Mankato. That would bring the Super Region 3 final to Duluth.
That’s all pretty far-fetched, and Nielson will have nothing to do with such speculation. As far as the coaching staff, and the players, are concerned, the cliche of playing one game at a time has never been more appropriate. Somehow, Missouri Western State has been declared a higher seed than UMD, so the Bulldogs trek onto NCAA Division II tournament turf goes there, and only there, on Saturday. Any other future playoff games will take care of themselves.
“When you get to the tournament every team you play will be a good one,” said Nielson. “So it doesn’t matter who you play or where you play them.”
It would be hard to imagine a better weekend for Minnesota and area football. Not only did UMD win to advance to NCAA Division II playoffs, but St. Scholastica also learned it would be playing Saturday at UW-Oshkosh in Division III playoffs.
On top of that, Minnesota won impressively at Illinois and became “bowl eligible” as they say, with the sixth victory of the season. The Golden Gophers are an impressive 6-4 until you realize that their 17-3 victory lifted them to a dazzling 2-4 record in the Big Ten. It is analogous to the Vikings playing four MIAC teams in preseason romps, and then counting them toward their NFL record.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, rushed for 564 yards in routing Indiana 62-14.
To complete the big weekend, the Vikings beat Detroit 34-24 in the Metrodome to revive their faltering hopes. Adrian Peterson was fantastic, again, and finally Christian Ponder returned to the calm, cool, poised and efficient quarterback he was through the first four games of the season, and showed none of the shaky, inconsistent, and inept play of the last month. We don’t know which one we’ll get Sunday, when the Vikings play the Bears in Chicago, but it’s worth noting in this odd schedule that the Vikings haven’t played either the Packers or the Bears yet, and will play both of them twice from now on.