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Ordinarily, when UMD opens the NCHC season with a home series at AMSOIL Arena, it’s the biggest sports event of the weekend in Duluth, and especially on the UMD campus.
This weekend, the No. 1 ranked Bulldogs, fresh from a weekend off, will meet Colorado College Friday and Saturday nights to open league play.
The UMD football team, at 1 p.m. Saturday, will wind up its regular season against Northern State with the chance to finish a perfect 11-0 and hopes of being host to a playoff game as they continue their quest for a possible NCAA Division 2 championship.
And yet the biggest story of the weekend for UMD has got to be the women’s volleyball team, which completed an amazing season in an improbable tie with Northern State for first place in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Because they beat Northern twice this season, the Bulldogs wind up with the No. 1 seed, and by beating Upper Iowa in three straight sets in Tuesday night’s quarterfinals of the league playoff, UMD wins the right to play host to the semifinals Friday night, and the championship game on Saturday. That not only is huge, but the winner of the league playoff gets an automatic berth in the NCAA Division 2 volleyball tournament.
That represents three pretty major events for UMD’s three most high-profile fall sports teams.
A week ago, UMD was in a three-way tie with perennial power Concordia of St. Paul and Northern State, and all three had a pair of home matches to conclude the regular season. While UMD put away both of its matches, as did Northern State, Concordia was upset and dropped back to a game behind UMD and Northern, and tied with Southwest Minnesota State for third and fourth.
Because the NSIC is clearly the strongest conference in the nation in Division 2, those top four all have legitimate shots at the title, and a realistic chance to do some serious damage in the national tournament.
This Bulldogs team is perfectly built for a balanced run at the title, with the explosive scoring of Sarah Kelly, Kate Berg, and Makenzie Morgen, and the emergence of Hanna Meyer, plus strong contributions from the entire lineup. To emphasize that, UMD swept their final regular series last Saturday from Minot with 25-13, 25-9 and 25-13 set victories.
For the match, Meyer had 12 kills and Kelly 10, Morgen 9 and Berg 7. Abby Thor, a junior middle blocker, led the team with 13 kills. That’s how the team has gone, however, with the top guns filling support roles whenever one of the support players has a hot night scoring.
“Everything worked out just right for us to end up at home, with a chance to host the semifinals and finals,” said coach Jim Boos, who obviously is aware the Bulldogs have played very well on the road, but have been outstanding at home.
With an 18-3 record atop the standings, UMD is 26-5 overall. Northern State wound up 18-3 and now 27-3, and good as they are, two of the Wolves three losses came against UMD. Concordia was swept in three straight at Romano Gym, but that was a nonconference match, and Concordia beat UMD in their only NSIC match, at Concordia.
What makes you think good fortune might be smiling on the Bulldogs is that had they ended in a three-way tie, Concordia would have been No 1 seed. This is a young and rebuilding Concordia team, while Northern State is a veteran outfit. But UMD is a veteran team with outstanding balance, and an unfortunate injury to Sarah Kelly early in the season might have also been a blessing in disguise.
The unquestioned team leader, Kelly’s absence hurt the Bulldogs, who lost at St. Cloud State without her. But Meyer moved in and became an exciting new factor in UMD’s offense, flying high for her kills on the right side, to complement Berg’s power kills on the left. Morgan, capable of leading the team in kills, has given Boos the chance to move players around with more flexibility, now that Kelly is back and has regained her dominant form.On the football field, the Bulldogs need the tougher competition that Northern State can provide. In their last two games, UMD led 56-0 at halftime - a school record - while cruising 63-7 at Crookston two weeks ago, and last week they hammered Mary 55-0.
The Mary game was unusual because the Marauders seemed to stun UMD with a game-opening onside kick. While UMD’s defense stopped the Marauders after they recovered the onside kick, the first quarter was scoreless. UMD then scored four touchdowns in the second quarter for a 27-0 lead in the 55-0 blowout.
In UMD’s case, injuries that might have crippled some teams, and might have knocked UMD out of the running in a different season, have not caused even a ripple with these Bulldogs. Filling in at quarterback, or wide receiver, or running back, or on defense - coach Kurt Wiese has assembled so much depth that there isn’t even a let off.
Johnny McCormick caught two touchdown passes as an example. His 37-yard score was thrown by Mike Rybarczyk in the second quarter, and he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ben Everhart to start the third quarter. UMD also got an opening touchdown from Zach Ojile, normally a tight end. Given the opportunity, Ojile carried 12 times for 120 bruising yards, including a 42-yard run.
Rybarczyk was 7-10 passing for 114 yards, Everhart 10-16 for 131 yards in relief, and Garrett Olson 3-5 for 51 yards finishing up. Everhart and Olson also ran for touchdowns.
Chances are, Northern State will provide a much stiffer bit of opposition, which is a good thing. The Bulldogs need a test as a playoff tuneup.