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In the array of intercollegiate sports teams at UMD, volleyball falls in there someplace behind Division I men’s hockey, Division I women’s hockey, and Division II football, and in a lot of years it might find men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball battling it for prominence.
But not this season. This season, football had a fantastic run to the national tournament’s second round, and men’s hockey is stirring up new interest in its new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. But women’s volleyball is right up there with the best and most entertaining sports on campus. When the current season just ended Saturday, with a three games to one loss to six-time defending NCAA Division II Concordia of St. Paul, the Bulldogs had thoroughly entertained a crowd of 1,700 -- win or lose. Of course, the Bulldogs won more than they lost, dropping only one home-court match at Romano Gym, to Northern State, before falling to Concordia.
When it was over, UMD coach Jim Boos congratulated the Golden Bears, and his own team. “I’m proud of how hard we played,” he said. “We just got outplayed by a team that just played better. They made only nine hitting errors all night. I’m proud of our effort, and our energy level, and we had a tremendous year, with all the records and awards, but they just weren’t making any mistakes.”
Kate Lange, who set the all-time UMD record for career kills early in the season, finished with 24 kills on 59 attempts -- both nearly twice as many as any other player on either team. “It was awesome to have all those fans behind us,” said Lange. “For sure, we battled back, and if we hadn’t dug such a hold for ourselves, we probably could have done even better.”
Lange got emotional then. “I kinda felt it was our night, until it was over,” she said. “It’s crazy it’s over already...I wouldn’t have played anywhere else.”
Concordia coach Brady Starkey is legendary for his casual approach. He has his team so plugged in that his players are always upbeat, never seeming to notice, or show, any effects of pressure. “Volleyball, and sports, are supposed to be fun,” said Starkey. “The games are much easier when everybody takes a light approach and is enjoying it.
“When they beat us 3-0, it was a good match. Our girls realized that if we don’t come to play in the final, what could happen. We played very efficient and clean and it was a total team effort. We got blocks when we needed them, we covered, we scrapped, and we got through some long rallies. We did a good job of taking what we could, and we got good touches to slow them down.”
Kayla Koenecke, a senior from Delano, has now played in -- and won -- regional and national championships every year. She’ll be trying for her fourth while the Golden Bears will be striving for their seventh. I asked he if she could ever envision Concordia losing in this Central Regional final. “No, I can’t ever envision that,” she said. “We enjoyed every point, because four years is too short, and you never know when you might have your last game together.”
BULLDOGS FACE BRONCOS
The biggest adjustment UMD’s men have to make on the hockey rink is to adjust to the new rivalries of the NCHC. This weekend, for example, UMD welcomes Western Michigan to AMSOIL Arena for a conference series. Last weekend, it was St. Cloud State, a familiar rival from WCHA days. But in the WCHA, Minnesota was always UMD’s biggest rival, and St. Cloud State’s, too.
Now the Bulldogs and Huskies are each other’s prime in-state rival, because both are in the new NCHC. Last weekend’s series was typically close, because each team had the upper hand in one of the games but not the other.
The problem was that while UMD outplayed St. Cloud State the first night, outshooting the Huskies 15-4 in the first period and 38-18 for the game, the Huskies got a lucky goal when Kalle Kossila came up the left side and flung the puck across the slot to the far, right corner. The flip hit Tim Smith’s glove, made a 30-degree change of direction, and fooled a helpless Matt McNeely to catch the far corner for a 2-2 tie. It stayed that way until former Blaine star Jonny Brodzinski got loose with five minutes left and drilled a sniper’s shot into the upper right corner. Brodzinski added an empty net goal for a 4-2 victory.
“I’ve been in this game for 27, 28, 29 years, and I don’t think I ever saw robbery like that,” said Huskies coach Bob Motzko. “Our goalie [Ryan Fragher] played well and we hung around until we played better in the third. But we played so poorly, thank god we play tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow” came and the Huskies spanked UMD, which couldn’t match their first-game verve, in a 5-1 blowout. It was a reversal for the Bulldogs, who had been stuck in a rut of playing spotty the first game and then a strong second game, but they played well enough to get a split, and being swept at home could come back to haunt them in the standings.