Meyer, Berg rise to offset Kelly’s injury

John Gilbert

UMD’s Kate Berg went from 6 kills on Friday to a team leading 22 in the 3-2 victory over  undefeated and No. 1 ranked Northern State. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD’s Kate Berg went from 6 kills on Friday to a team leading 22 in the 3-2 victory over undefeated and No. 1 ranked Northern State. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hanna Meyer emerged in Sarah Kelly’s absence to soar out of the Romano Gym lights to deliver  21 kills against Moorhead Friday and 18 more against Northern Saturday. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hanna Meyer emerged in Sarah Kelly’s absence to soar out of the Romano Gym lights to deliver 21 kills against Moorhead Friday and 18 more against Northern Saturday. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The scene is familiar for followers of the UMD volleyball team. A group of unified, talented players can take on the best competition in Division 2 and usually come out on top, thanks, primarily, to the only two seniors on the squad - Sarah Kelly and Makenzie Morgen.

Usually they finish 1-2 on the team in kills, and provide the necessary stability for a team of younger but capable players. Kelly, inb fact, is second in the country  with a career .379 percentage of kills per attack, and she has 1,111 kills for her career. Morgen isn’t far behind, and will undoubtedly be the next Bulldog to top 1,000.

All was in order when the Bulldogs left Duluth having swept Bemidji State three straight at AMSOIL Arena, in their home opener, while Romano Gym renovations were being completed. With UMD volleyball, the media pays attention, but it’s hard not to think of it as superficial. The team went on the road and played its next four matches, winning three by 3-0 counts, and losing at St. Cloud State by the same, surprising, 3-0 score.

They came home last weekend to start a five-game homestand, and I walked into the newly redone Romano Gym - which has backrests on the bleacher seats, and a redone floor that reportedly will not shift up or down a couple of inches during inclement weather - to watch UMD face Minnesota State-Moorhead.

They introduced the Dragons starters first, then the arena darkened in what has, by now, become a somewhat trite way to bolster the home team. Then they introduced the full UMD roster, saving the starters for last. As the match started, conspicuous by her absence was the lanky, tactically flawless No. 9. I thought coach Jim Boos was playing a tactical trick by not starting Sarah Kelly, the kill leader. But she didn’t rotate in, either.

Emily Torve (4) blocks an MSU-Moorhead kill attempt, assisted by Abby Thor in UMD’s  double block. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Emily Torve (4) blocks an MSU-Moorhead kill attempt, assisted by Abby Thor in UMD’s double block. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD scoring leader Sarah Kelly, left, rested her injured knee, joining Mandy Kurosky, who had  surgery last week for torn knee ligaments, to support the team. Photo credit: John Gilbert
UMD scoring leader Sarah Kelly, left, rested her injured knee, joining Mandy Kurosky, who had surgery last week for torn knee ligaments, to support the team. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Finally I spotted her sitting in a chair adjacent to the bench, along with teammate Mandy Kurosky, who had a knee brace and crutches. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, without Kurosky, who had surgery for a torn ACL in her knee and Kelly, who was a surprise scratch, they beat Moorhead 3-1, winning 25-15, 25-22, losing 25-27, and clinching with a 25-12 triumph.

Hanna Meyer, a new standout as a junior outside hitter, came through in big fashion, soaring high for a career-high 21 kills and a game-best .395 percentage. Makenzie had 15 kills in a strong supporting role. Abby Thor had 8 kills, while Kate Berg, the colorful sophomore who is capable of leading the team at full strength, had only 6 kills and was rotated out of the lineup for much of the third set because of a flurry of nine errors.

Meyer’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time, because next up was a Saturday night date with Northern State, the undefeated and No. 1 ranked Wolves from Aberdeen. They would have to do it without Sarah Kelly, whose absence was a mystery to virtually the entire media that paid attention to the Bulldogs.

They weren’t aided by the data privacy rules, which coach Boos follows to the letter, or by the publicity release, which mentions what a great season Sarah Kelly is having, without ever mentioning that she did not play in the last three road games, and would not play for the weekend. So anyone paying casul attention might not have noticed her being among the missing.

Boos said he did not bench Kate Berg as a lesson, but more because other players were more effective. However, if it wasn’t a lesson, it was as good as any lesson could be.

The Bulldogs, shorthanded as they were, came out and battled Northern State, staying in contention at 14-15 in the first set before falling behind 17-21. Berg was playing at her best, and Meyer was delivering another strong show, and UMD closed the gap from 19-24 to defy repeated set points and get to 23-24, before a serve into the net ended their bid and they lost 23-25. Morgen had 8 kills, Berg 7, and Meyer 3. Berg, by comparison, had only 6 kills in the whole match with Moorhead.

In Set 2, UMD stormed to an early 6-1 lead, and it grew to 11-4, 18-11, and 20-12 before winning 25-17 to square the match. Berg and Meyer had 4 kills each, Morgen and Abby Thor 3 each to lead the way.

In Set 3, UMD trailed an aroused Northern squad 2-5, but fought back to 10-10 and 12-12 before taking their first lead at 13-12. Another brief lapse - or more likely a Northern refocused intensity - and UMD fell behind 16-19 and 18-20. Berg, playing her best, came up with two key kills to erase a 19-21 deficit, and Meyer blasted one for a 23-21 lead, and the Bulldogs prevailed 25-21. Berg had 5 kills, Meyer 3 in another balanced effort. 

In Set 4, Berg and Meyer both had 5 kills, but the Wolves scored on a number of blocks, and UMD fell 22-25. That squared the match at 2 wins apiece, and it was left to the 15-point Set 5.

The Bulldogs were able to set up Berg for both hard kills and soft-touch change-ups, and UMD grabbed an 8-3 lead. Northern came back hard, cutting th elead to 10-8, and 13-12, but UMD came through for the next two points with some great defensive play, and won 15-12 to take the match 3-2 and hand the Wolves their first defeat of the season.

Berg tried to shrug off any accolades and said, “It was mostly the vibe of the whole team. Everybody ws involved and when the back row can help the front row by giving instructions, it really helps.”

But for the match, Berg had 22 kills, while Meyer had 18 and Morgen 14. Northern State got 20 kills from Hailey Busch and 16 from Laura Snyder, with Sally Gaul chipping in 13.

“That’s the Kate Berg we all know from last season,” said Boos. “She did a tremendous job. She was motivated, and played hard. She has such a heavy arm. Hanna Meyer also played well again, and we had some unsung heroes, like Abby Thor and Summer Ballard [who got 8 and 7 kills, respectively]. I think the way we battled back in the first set set the stage for our whole night.”

Meanwhile, back on the bench, Mandy Kurosky had her crutches, and said she’ll come back for her senior season next year. And Sarah Kelly, uninhibited by any data privacy rules, said she was practicing on the Monday before the last road trip and she made an awkward jump and injured her knee.

“I partially tore the patellar tendon that holds my kneecap in place,” Kelly said. “The good news is they told me no surgery is needed and I can rehab it.”

This weekend, the Bulldogs face Augustana Friday at 6 p.m. and Wayne State on Saturday at 4 p.m. to continue their homestand. There’s no timetable on Sarah Kelly’s return, but UMD’s great season may depend on the improvement and emergence of some of the great Bulldog depth, because it will be awhile before No. 9 can be seen soaring above the net again.