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The UMD volleyball team vaulted back into the thick of perhaps the thickest Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference race for prominence last weekend, but in the process, the young and rebuilt Bulldogs may have destroyed their own image.
For several years, the Bulldogs have challenged at the top of the NSIC race, but invariably Concordia seemed to come on at the end and win to either claim the title or the NCAA berth UMD had been seeking.
Right now, the logjam atop the NCAA Division II’s best conference couldn’t be more congested, as UMD, Concordia, Southwest Minnesota State and Northern State all stand 8-1 in conference play going into this weekend.
The difference, however, is how UMD got to that point — defeating No. 2 ranked Concordia in a 3-1 thriller last Saturday afternoon at Romano Gym. UMD and Concordia have established their rivalry at the top of the NSIC, which means it's also at the top of the nation in Division II volleyball.
Backing up a bit, UMD swept Minnesota State-Mankato 3-0 on Friday night, while Northern State stunned previously undefeated Southwest Minnesota State 3-1. That left the NCAA D-II ratings with Lewis University of Iowa No. 1, while Southwest Minnesota State dropped from 1 to 2, and Concordia slipped from second to No. 3, and UMD climbed up to No. 5. Incredible that one conference could have three of the top five ranked teams in the nation, but it’s likely to get even more congested in coming weeks.
The biggest factor for coach Jim Boos and his UMD team is the great athleticism — a word I hate to use — and balance that has carried the Bulldogs to a strong start and continued improvement.
For example, in Game 1 against Concordia, the also rebuilt Concordia outfit jumped ahead 2-6 and built it to 4-10. About the time it looked like UMD should start saving their energy for Game 2, a curious thing happened. All season, juniors Makenzie Morgen and Sarah Kelly have led the attack for UMD, with freshman Kate Berg joining them as a big three leading in kills. Going into the Concordia match, Kelly had 190 kills, Morgen 180, and Berg 166.
But Berg was clearly off her game, slamming hard shots but often missing their destination. In the rotation, Berg went back to serve when UMD trailed 4-10, and while serving might be overrated in volleyball, the freshman from Wayzata High School got on a roll, and the Bulldogs scored eight consecutive points, with various players coming up with key plays, as UMD went from 4-10 to 12-10 and continued to play at that peak until claiming Game 1 by a 25-22 count. As it turned out, Kelly, Morgen and Berg each had 5 kills in the first game, when UMD hit for a stellar .410 percentage to Concordia’s .222.
But Concordia turned things around in Game 2. UMD led 10-6, before Concordia rallied to reel in the Bulldogs at 15-15 and won the game. UMD’s 21-25 setback saw a drop to a .359 kill percentage, while Concordia rose to .439, led by Sydney Book’s heavy hits.
Then the match got a bit rough, as both teams had trouble continuing their tempo but UMD simply played through it, depending on outstanding team blocking to let an early lead hold up throughout for a 25-22 victory. Game 4 was more of the same, but the Bulldogs showed more tenacity and a 7-11 deficit to take charge at 14-13, and pulled away for a very satisfying 25-19 triumph.
“Over the course of history, we’ve had these long, tough matches but we’ve been the team to make the late mistake and let the games get away,” said Boos. “Concordia will get better, though, they always do. But we’ll get better too. Concordia has a lot of new faces, but we’re getting strong consistent play, and lot of moxie, from a lot of players.
“It was interesting because of how the match-ups worked out, and that makes a lot of difference in how we can set up.”
Morgen ended up with a season-high 19 kills for the match, while Kelly had 15 and Berg 14. Not to be overlooked, Abby Thor and Allison Olley had 9 kills each, and Olley was named conference defensive player of the week, while setter Emily Torve was offensive player of the week, with 58 assists.
It was interesting also to see Berg facing some heavier than usual pressure, but rotating back to contribute her hot serving hand. “She has what we call a high volleyball IQ,” said Boos. “We knew when we recruited her she could play anywhere on the court.”
Berg, who decided to come to UMD after watching the Bulldogs win a 5-game match at Concordia in St. Paul, said she’s enjoying her freshman season. “Everybody has been so great, they’ve made sure the younger players fit right in,” said Berg. “I didn’t really know how much I’d play to start with, but I’ve always been a circuit player, so I’m used to playing all over the court.
“I was told to be more aggressive, and maybe that’s why I missed some shots,” Berg added.
That’s maybe the best measure of this year’s Bulldog team. When they’re all hitting at peak efficiency, they are certain winners, but when hitting percentages take a beating and the game becomes dominated by blockers, the Bulldogs have a whole team of players who seem to be able to contribute valuable plays.