UMD volleyball team gets another NCAA chance

John Gilbert

Season kill leader Sarah Kelly blasted one of her 16 kills against Winona State in UMD’s quarterfinal match. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Season kill leader Sarah Kelly blasted one of her 16 kills against Winona State in UMD’s quarterfinal match. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Freshman Kate Berg went high for one of her 15 kills in the 3-2 triumph. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Freshman Kate Berg went high for one of her 15 kills in the 3-2 triumph. Photo credit: John Gilbert

It was altogether fitting and proper that UMD’s volleyball team was selected as an at-large entry into the eight-team Central Regional NCAA Division II tournament. It is the 15th time in the last 16 years UMD has reached that plateau. But whatever happens, the results of the past week’s Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament created some unforgettable moments.

In the course of the long season, one was just a tiny slice of drama. The site was Romano Gym, and UMD’s volleyball team had gone from dominating, to being dominated, by Winona State in the Northern Sun quarterfinal match.

The Bulldogs got an incredibly balanced attack to win 25-19 and 25-17, and they worked their way to the verge of a sweep at 24-22 in Game 3. But Winona State came back to steal a point, then another, and wound up with four points in a row to win the set 26-24 and avert a UMD sweep.

Momentum swings are always present in volleyball matches, especially in the NSIC — the strongest Division II conference in the nation. So Winona State rode the quick burst of momentum to a 25-19 victory in the fourth set, squaring the match and setting up a 15-point sprint in the fifth.

The teams battled back and forth, with Winona State going up 9-6, then 10-7, and 11-8. As the league’s fifth-place team, the Warriors were nearing the elimination of fourth-place UMD. Then Allison Olley, a senior playing what would be her final game at UMD, came up with a big point for the Bulldogs, and freshman Kate Berg scored with a soft-touch lob. Then Olley and Berg double-blocked a Winona attempt, and it was 11-11. Olley, playing in the middle, went up and blocked the next Winona try also, putting UMD ahead 12-11.

Senior Allison Olley was instrumental with her middle blocking prowess, and also hammered 15 kills. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Senior Allison Olley was instrumental with her middle blocking prowess, and also hammered 15 kills. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Makenzie Morgen notched one of her 14 kills, on her way to a starring role at the NSIC semifinals. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Makenzie Morgen notched one of her 14 kills, on her way to a starring role at the NSIC semifinals. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Winona State tied it 12-all, and then sophomore Keena Seiffert, whose contributions have been more significant than her moments in the spotlight, went back to serve. UMD crept ahead 13-12 and 14-12, as Seiffert came through for her second ace of the match. Serving at 14-12, Seiffert sent a low serve toward the right side — her weakness much of the season, according to coach Jim Boos. The ball struck the tape that runs along the top edge of the net, and after a momentary pause, it fell over the net and straight down. It was undoubtedly the most unconventional ace of the season for the Bulldogs, who won the match with that 15-12 ace.

After a thousand serves through the season, I asked Boos how many serves has he seen that hit the net and fall just over for an ace.

“How many?” Boos said. “Like, one.”

The victory sent the Bulldogs on down to Concordia in St. Paul for the semifinals last weekend - the NSIC’s own version of a final four. “That’s what’s ahead of us,” said Boos. “Winona played great, and that was a showcase for Division II volleyball. It’s just a shame one of these two teams had to lose this match.”

At Concordia, the Bulldogs had to go against No. 1 Concordia, the host team and the defending champion. In fact, at 27-2, Concordia had suffered one of its two losses at UMD in a four-game stunner. The Bulldogs took it to the Golden Bears, winning 25-17 and 25-21 before dropping Game 3 25-18. The crucial set came next, and Concordia came through for a 26-24 victory that evened the match at 2-2. In the deciding fifth set, a few mistakes undid the Bulldogs, and Concordia escaped with a 15-10 victory and a 3-2 triumph in the match.

That sent them up against Southwest Minnesota State, ranked No. 4 in the country, and Southwest shocked Concordia by sweeping three straight sets - 25-19, 25-21, 25-14 - to gain the NSIC playoff title and advance to the league’s automatic NCAA berth.

The selection process came Monday night. No. 1 SW Minnesota State — which is 28-3 with one of its losses at UMD — facing No. 8 Arkansas Tech, 35-0. UMD, seeded fifth at 24-6 faces NSIC rival Northern State (23-6). In the lower bracket, No. 2 Concordia (28-3) takes on No. 7 Central Oklahoma (29-5), and No. 3 Nebraska-Kearney (33-3) meets No. 6 Missouri West (24-10). Those matches are Friday, Nov. 30, at Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall, Minnesota.

UMD’s biggest asset is its great balance, and its team blocking ability. Against Winona State, the usual “big three” of Sarah Kelly, Kate Berg and Makenzie Morgen were strong with 16, 15 and 14 kills, respectively. But Allison Olley rose up amid them with 15 kills for a decisive four-killer attack. It was, however, a true team effort. If you were among the 1,800 at Romano Gym and saw Keena Seiffert’s game-ending ace, you understood. 

The NCAA Division II women’s volleyball tournament is extremely tough, rigidly challenging. And probably second only to the NSIC tournament!