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The UMD women’s volleyball team has treated Duluth-area fans to a lot of thrills over the last decade, but the Bulldogs may have outdone themselves this season. We know that the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is the strongest Division II volleyball conference in the country, and we’re also aware that Concordia of St. Paul and Southwest Minnesota State have probably combined to have been ranked No. 1 in the country most of the season.
Concordia came to Romano Gym back on October 7, and the Bulldogs played their best of the season to that point, winning 25-22, losing 21-25, then subduing the defending champions 25-22, 25-19 in the final two games for a 3-1 triumph.
Cruising after that, the Bulldogs continued to improve but ran into a late lost weekend two weeks ago and dropped two matches. That brought them back to Romano Gym last weekend for their final home regular-season matches, starting with Friday’s huge battle with Southwest Minnesota State. Having beaten Concordia, which had been No. 1 at the time, now it was SW Minnesota State, the No. 1 team last week.
With a good crowd on hand to kick off Senior Weekend at UMD, the Bulldogs were quite decisively outplayed and lost 20-25 in the first game. UMD hit only .089, and if you can equate a team’s kill success with a baseball batting average or not, .089 isn’t good enough. Especially when Southwest Minnesota State hit a good, but not spectacular, .286 — easily good enough to run up leads of six or seven points and holding firm. UMD did close to 20-23, before Southwest finished it off.
It got better in the second game, as the teams battled back and forth for the upper hand. The Bulldogs trailed 10-12, but never by more than 2, and when they gained a 16-15 edge, they held on, gaining momentum till the finish to win 25-21 and even the match. In that game, Southwest improved its hitting percentage to .438, but UMD was a sizzling .500, led by Sarah Kelly and freshman Kate Berg.
In the third game, Kelly continued to set a torrid pace with rifle-like kills from her outside hitter post, and several soft-touch lobs that confounded the Southwest Minnesota blockers and often fell for impressive change-up points. But it wasn’t easy, as UMD fell behind 0-3, and 1-4, before getting it together for a run of four points twice in close order to gain the upper hand at 10-7. The Bulldogs built the lead to 18-11 and then 22-12, and won 25-14. In the process, they hit .500 again, and their stifling blocks and impressive back row digs stymied Southwest to a mere .125.
In Game 4, UMD started 3-0 and never looked back, blitzing Southwest for leads of 11-4, 16-7, and 22-11 before cruising to a 25-14 victory, a reward for hitting at a .520 clip. Sarah Kelly wound up with a season-high 23 kills on 31 total attacks for a personal .613 percentage, while Berg had 13 kills. Makenzie Morgen, usually a solid threat to make the scoring binge a big three, had only 6 kills, but coach Jim Boos wisely maneuvered reserves in and out and got strong play throughout the lineup, thanks to Emily Torve’s adept set-ups. She had 53 assists.
“We’ve got some depth this year and we can cover for each other,” said Boos. “Sarah was unbelievable, and Emily controlled the match with her sets.”
It was suggested that the Bulldogs turnabout from a .089 first set to a strong overall .362 for the four-set victory, was such a complete reversal it almost seemed like the first set was a little rope-a-dope. Boos laughed at such an outrageous suggestion, but acknowledged that his team had seen its focus wander a week earlier.
“Our first game was basically the same as our 0-2 weekend,” said Boos. “We’ve stressed maintaining our mental aggressiveness, and we came back and did that in the last three games.”
The Bulldogs came right back Saturday and beat Sioux Falls 25-22, 25-13, 17-25, 25-23 for another 3-1 victory, and they are out of town this weekend to end the regular season at Augustana and Wayne State. As of now, the Northern Sun race shows Concordia 14-1, while UMD, Southwest Minnesota State and Northern State are all tied for second at 13-2, lurking there like sharks, waiting for any slip up above.
Nationally, UMD stands No. 6 in the country. Concordia has reclaimed the No. 1 spot, and Southwest Minnesota State was knocked down to No. 4, and while both of them are legitimate threats to be No. 1 in the country, neither of them are interested in coming back to Romano Gym.
Proctor Earns State
Proctor was the No. 2 seed and Esko No. 1 when the two collided at Malosky Stadium last Thursday night for the Section 7 AAA championship. It was a game worthy of their long neighborhood rivalry, as well as for the title.
Esko spent the whole first period in Proctor territory, twice getting down to “goal-to-go” territory, but both times the Rails repelled them and survived a scoreless opening quarter. Late in the first, Proctor clicked on a lengthy drive of its own, and opened the second quarter with a short touchdown run by quarterback John Pioro. The Rails defense held the Eskomos and took over after a short punt, and stormed in again.
Again it was Pioro, pretty much alternating rushes with running back Jerid Parrott to reach the 2, from where Pioro faked a sneak and waltzed in around the left of the tangle at the goal line. Ben Harnell’s kick made it 14-0. One more possessin, and the Rails moved down again, stalling at the 20, so Harnell booted a 37-yard field goal and it was 17-0 at halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, Esko battled back and got on the board to make it 17-6 when Brendan Durand hit Sam Dupuis on a 9-yard slant. It got real interesting shortly after that, when the Eskomos forced a Rails punt, and Branden Matteen caught it and weaved through the Proctor coverage, 68 yards for a touchdown. Matteen then pitched to Dupuis for the conversion, and it was 24-14.
The Rails held on, making one final important march — on which they recovered two of their own fumbles -- and Pioro crashed in yet again for a another 2-yard score, and a 24-14 victory.
It was a great game amid a group of blowouts. Cloquet stayed undefeated by thrashing North Branch 46-26 Friday at Public Schools Stadium, as Spencer Wehr scored seven touchdowns. He gained 221 yards on 34 rushes. Cloquet, the 7 AAAA champ, goes to St. Cloud State to face Becker Friday night; Proctor (8-2) faces Pierz (10-0) at Brainerd High School at 3 p.m. Saturday; Moose Lake-Willow River (6-5) won 7 AA and plays West Central Area Friday at 7 at Brainerd; and in 9-man, Cromwell-Wright (11-0) faces Stephen-Argyle (10-1) Friday at Bemidji State.