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The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is strong in virtually every sport, from baseball, softball, football, basketball, track, cross country, and soccer…oh yeah, and volleyball.
There is no conference in Division II — and possibly in any NCAA division — that can match the extreme success and competitiveness of the NSIC, where the ratings are both extremely impressive and also meaningless. Usually, there might be four or five NSIC teams ranked in the top 10, and nobody can hope to go undefeated through the buzzsaw that is the schedule of two matches every week, once conference play begins.
“Northern State was picked as our league favorite, and rightfully so,” said UMD coach Jim Boos, who seemed relieved to name somebody other than his own squad to wear the favorite’s target.
“Concordia lost a lot to graduation, but you know they’ll be right back in the thick of it with new players. Sioux Falls, and Southwest Minnesota State lost some players but should be tough, as usual.”
Boos, however, couldn’t avoid talking about his UMD Bulldogs, who seem representative of all top contenders in the NSIC. The Bulldogs lost two vital parts of last year’s team that tied for first place with an amazing 17-3 record, and went 28-6 overall. They also had their turn being ranked No. 1, as did several other conference teams.
Losing only two starters may seem light, but those two were UMD standouts Sarah Kelly and Makenzie Morgen. Both were outside hitters, and both were named first team all-NSIC. Replacing them will be the primary objective for Boos, but he appears to have the depth and personnel to carry it off as he heads into his 17th season with an amazing 466-88 record..
First of all, Kate Berg is back for her junior season after flashes of brilliance and dominant play on numerous occasions. Outside hitters rise to prominence every year, but opponents who want to block Berg should wear helmets. She might have the most powerful right arm in the conference. She, too., was a first-team all-NSIC pick, as was setter Emily Torve.
Torve returns as a senior having gotten married over the summer to Jason Balts, a standout UMD wide receiver. To have setter Emily (Torve) Balts setting for the likes of Kate Berg and Hanna Meyer is pretty potent to start with.
“I would love to have Kate Berg take that next step and become a dominant force for us on the outside,” said Boos, as he opened practice Tuesday afternoon. “She carried us in some games last season, and we just need for her to do that consistently.”
Among the returning players Boos has are Berg, Balts, Meyer, senior middle blocker Abby Thor, and senior libero Keena Seiffert. Adding middle blocker Bailey Ramich to Balts, Meyer, Thor and Seiffert gives UMD five seniors, the most in the last five years.
Asked which players might seize the opportunity and become key offensive contributors to replace Kelly and Morgen, Boos ticked off a lengthy list of his roster-full of candidates.
“Meredith Sutton is a sophomore from Cook County, and at 6-foot-1, she’s strong and will contribute,” Boos said. “Among the freshmen, Hope Schjenken from Deer River is a 5-11 middle blocker who might help us right away.”
It is rare for freshmen to be impact players for UMD because of the Bulldogs depth. And more than that, it is impossible to guess who might emerge from the group.
“The beauty of our program is that as soon as you start making assumptions about who might be a player that can contribute, someone else rises up to surprise you. We have 14 veterans back, and some years our starters look the same on Day 1 as on Day 91. Other times, there is no resemblance.”
The Bulldogs volleyball program has risen to prominence, and was aided last season by the renovation started on Romano Gym. This year, the work continues, but part of that is paying dividends already. Tuesday was a surprisingly hot day, reaching about 80 outside. But in the gym, the new air-conditioning system was working beautifully, and it seemed to add some bounce to the workouts, as the players ran, jumped, leaped to block or slam kills, and generally hustled through it all.
The season opens September 6, and games against foes such as Cal State-San Bernardino and Cal State-Los Angeles, and Palm Beach Atlantic should tell Boos and his players a lot about the upcoming season. A couple of tournaments on the way home will lead up to Sept. 20 and 21, when UMD opens its NSIC schedule at home against Upper Iowa and Winona State.
Romano Gym was not only a comfortable place to play, but the Bulldogs drew an average of 863 for 14 home games — fifth best among all Division II programs. And to open this season, UMD has won 25 consecutive home games, going 14-0 last season and 11-0 in the 2017 season.
And if this season’s team is particularly cool, some credit might be owed to the air conditioning.