MARSHALL - There's a simple reason why the Concordia-St. Paul volleyball team has won five straight Division II national championships, and now, after Saturday's sweep of Southwest Minnesota State, 10 straight Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular season titles. The Golden Bears have played great volleyball, and they have done so more consistently than anybody else.
Needing to earn a win over No. 1-ranked SMSU in Saturday's season finale to clinch a share of the NSIC crown, the No. 2-ranked Golden Bears put on a clinic inside the PE Gym in Marshall, never trailing at any point in the first two sets on their way to a 25-18, 25-21, 25-19 victory. Concordia's 15th straight win of the season snapped SMSU's school record 19-match win streak and gave the Golden Bears an 18-2 conference record to clinch a share of the NSIC title with SMSU and Minnesota-Duluth.
The Mustangs (26-2 overall), who lost their NSIC opener to Concordia in a sweep, were hoping that the experience gained through the conference season and their home-court advantage would help them in the rematch, but again, the Golden Bears were the sharper, more consistent team.
"One of the things I thought Concordia did so well is they didn't take any parts of any plays off," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "They made it hard for us to score all the time, and we didn't do that for them.
"You have to give them credit. They stayed after us and just kept putting pressure on us and we didn't react to that very well. We wanted to do it when it was convenient, they did it all the time. To me, that was the big difference in the match."
The Golden Bears had both a better attack and a better defensive performance than the Mustangs in the match. After recording a .471 hitting percentage in the first set, they finished with a .381 hitting percentage for the match compared to SMSU's .176 mark. And their total of 58 digs was 19 more than SMSU's.
CU25 25 25
SMSU18 21 19
Ace Serves: CU-Amanda Konetchy, Ellie Duffy, Erienne Lauersdorf; SMSU-McKell Anderson.
Kills: CU-Kayla Koenecke 13, Ashley Murtha 13, Duffy 11, Cassie Haag 6. SMSU-Mary Groth 12, Devin Diedrich 8, Brooke Burmeister 8, Abbey Thissen 7, Anderson 4.
Digs: CU-Taylor Dordan 18, Konetchy 9, Kara Pioske 8, Koenecke 8; SMSU-Emilee Gutzmer 10, Anderson 9, Rachel Westby 6.
Set Assists: CU-Konetchy 46; SMSU-Gutzmer 34.
Blocks (solo-assists): CU-Michelle Graham 2-0, Haag 0-2, Murtha 0-2; SMSU-Diedrich 2-0, Gutzmer 0-1, Groth 0-1.
When two top-ranked teams like the Mustangs and Golden Bears face each other, there are dominant hitters all along the net for both teams. Usually what the matches come down to is defense, and Concordia head coach Brady Starkey said his squad excelled in that aspect on Saturday.
"We got a lot of good touches on the block and that slowed down some balls so we could get some good digs up, and once balls start popping up that way, then they start crushing some and then you start digging some of those because you're kind of in that flow," he said. "Digging, it's one of those things that just keeps building on itself."
Concordia finished with five players with eight or more digs, led by Taylor Dordan's match-high 18. SMSU had just three players with four or more digs.
CU right side Kayla Koenecke and outside hitter Ashley Murtha each tallied 13 kills in the match, while outside hitter Ellie Duffy added 11 kills. SMSU was led in that department by Mary Groth, who was the only Mustang to reach double figures in kills with 12. She had a .476 attack percentage for the match, and nobody else for SMSU was over .150.
The Golden Bears took early leads in each of the first two sets and never trailed in them. SMSU had brief spurts of strong play, but was unable to sustain any long runs.
Starkey said a key for his team was to match the Mustangs' energy early, something the Golden Bears were clearly able to do.
"For these guys, you just know how aggressive they are and how hard they're going to play, and you have to match their intensity," Starkey said. "I thought our girls did a good job of bringing the same kind of life that they brought, because that's kind of what they're known for. They're known for getting after it, and our girls matched that intensity. It was fun to watch."
The third set was back and forth early, and SMSU was able to grab a 13-11 lead after a kill by freshman right side Abbey Thissen. But a kill by Koenecke and back-to-back attack errors by SMSU helped CU regain the lead at 14-13. The teams were later tied at 16 before CU surged ahead and finished out the match on a 9-3 run to send the home fans in the packed PE Gym away with a disheartening feeling.
The regular season is over, but the Mustangs are looking to have a long postseason run ahead of them. They earned the No. 2 seed in the eight-team NSIC Tournament and will play Friday against No. 7 seed Minnesota State-Mankato. The tournament will be hosted by Concordia, the No. 1 seed. Then it's the NCAA Central Region tournament, which begins Nov. 29.
Culhane hopes SMSU's disappointing finish to the regular season will serve as a learning experience for his players that they can use in the matches to come.
"I thought we did a poor job in the match today of making adjustments to what they were doing," Culhane said. "We just kept doing the same thing and clearly we didn't seem to learn from our mistakes very well.
"We have another big weekend next weekend and we still have plenty of season left, it's really what we do with it from here that will really make the difference."