MARSHALL - Mary Groth stepped onto the volleyball court at Southwest Minnesota State this season as a freshman, but her impact on the team has already been more than head coach Terry Culhane could have asked for.
Groth, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker, earned a starting role in the middle this year opposite sophomore Devin Diedrich.
"It's a lot to ask of a freshman," said Culhane. "It's such a learning experience for those kids. It's a big change from high school, but Mary's handled that part well and she's gotten better and better on the court. She works really hard and we're excited to have her on the team."
Photo by Jenny Kirk
SMSU’s Mary Groth (10) hits the ball over a pair of defenders during the Mustangs Late Show intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 20.
Groth quickly made a name for herself as the Mustangs opened the 2009 season at the Augustana/SpringHill Suites Invitational in Sioux Falls. SMSU went 4-0 in the two-day stretch and Groth earned a spot on the All-Tournament team.
"I thought our first tournament went really well," said Groth. "We all played together and had a blast. It was a new experience, but it was good to get a taste of the game. It's so much different and I'm just getting used to that level. I knew I could be a big part of the team, but I didn't know I'd make that big of an impact right away."
In the four matches, Groth pounded down 54 balls for an average of 3.86 per set. Even more impressive was Groth's .449 hitting percentage for the team. She only committed six errors in 107 attempts at the net. In addition, Groth added six blocks.
"Mary has done a really good job for us so far," Culhane said. "The college game is so much quicker and so much harder than high school. There isn't a harder position to come in at for the college level either. There's a lot to react to. It's hard to find good middles. Mary has a good attitude and will continue to get better."
Groth's debut didn't stop there as she was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
"I was actually very surprised that I received the award," Groth said. "I'm not one to want all that attention. But I was very happy."
Culhane said that the middles are a strength for the Mustang team.
"Clearly our strength in our middle," he said. "The first weekend of play, no one knew about Mary and she ripped it up pretty well. To be named the Offensive Player of the Week in the best conference in the country is something you don't plan on. She did a nice job."
But Culhane also knows that other teams will quickly adjust and try to figure out ways to stop their middles.
"Teams will try to stop us," he said. "Life won't be so easy for our middles now. So they need to realize that it won't be like that first weekend all the time. Life will change when teams make adjustments."
At the Colorado Premier Challenge, SMSU went 2-2. Groth killed nine balls in the Mustang's loss to No. 15 West Florida. She then earned 13 kills against Regis, a match which SMSU won 3-1.
"For a young kid, Mary understands shots and knows where to put the ball," Culhane said. "She crowds the net a little bit so the ball gets behind her sometimes. But that's something we'll continue to work on. What I like about her and what's she done a great job of is still producing offense even when the ball isn't in the best positions."
Groth smashed 12 kills and had four blocks, but No. 3 West Texas A & M proved too much for the Mustangs, winning 3-1. In its final game, SMSU improved its season to 6-2 with a 3-1 victory over Northwest Nazarene. Groth had 10 kills in the contest.
"I like the change in pace," said Groth. "I like the competitiveness and intensity of it. It's a whole new experience and one big rush with getting used to the pace, with nerves and the adrenaline."
Overall, Groth is leading the Mustangs in hitting percentage (.303) and is second behind Diedrich in total kills (98) and total blocks (13).
"Mary gets up well and plays high on the net," Culhane said. "She hits with such an angle and it's hard to defend. She's not as aggressive blocking as she is hitting, but eventually she'll be a very good blocker. There's a lot to learn yet with technique and timing at a high level."
Groth graduated from Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School in West Bend, Wis. Culhane said he liked what he saw in Groth's play.
"When we were recruiting Mary, the thing that stuck out the most for us is that she really worked hard," said Culhane. "Her club team was getting beat badly, but she was still working hard even though her teammates were not. She is long and has good mobility. I really think she has a lot of potential."
Groth is happy with her decision to compete at SMSU and feels comfortable on the team.
"It was a pretty good fit," she said. "I like it a lot. The hardest part has been getting used to the pace. There's not much time to take a breath during a play now. But it's good practice for when we play toucher teams down the road. I'm trying not to over-analyze anything and just play how I know I can play."
The Mustangs will get their next test when they travel to the Concordia University Tournament in St. Paul this weekend. SMSU opens with Bemidji State at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
"Mary is very critical of what she thinks she should be able to do," said Culhane. "But realistically, if it were easy, then everyone could do it. She still has a few things to get better at, but she has the potential to be a very good player. I wouldn't trade her for anything."