ST. PAUL - What a difference a week makes.
Only eight days removed from a humbling 3-0 loss to Concordia-St. Paul at home, the Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team struck back with a five-set victory over the top-ranked Golden Bears to capture the program's first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament championship Sunday at Concordia's Ganghelhoff Center.
Five Mustangs recorded double-digit kills, including Brooke Burmeister, who added 13 digs to earn a double-double, in SMSU's 25-19, 25-20, 12-25, 21-25, 15-10 victory. The Mustangs advanced to the championship match after dismantling Minnesota-Duluth 25-16, 25-17, 25-18 on Saturday.
Photo by Travis Andries
Southwest Minnesota State seniors Brooke Burmeister, left, Devin Diedrich (12) and Mary Groth hoist the NSIC?Tournament Championship trophy with junior Rachel Westby after Sunday’s match against Concordia-St. Paul
Burmeister also had three of SMSU's five service aces, the first of which put the Mustangs ahead 12-11 in the first set.
"Without my team, it wouldn't be anything," Burmeister said. "The passers put it on target, Emilee (Gutzmer) gave me a great ball and the middles pulled the block and gave me the opportunity. It wouldn't be anything without them."
After SMSU led 8-4 in Set 1, Concordia went on a 6-0 run to move in front of the Mustangs, but SMSU battled back and never trailed again in the set.
SMSU25 25 12 21 15
CU19 20 25 25 10
Serving (aces): SMSU-Brooke Burmeister 3, Rachel Westby 2; CU-Kayla Koenecke, Amanda Konetchy, Ellie Duffy, Taylor Dordan.
Kills: SMSU-Abbey Thissen 15, Burmeister 14, Mary Groth 13, Devin Diedrich 12, McKell Anderson 12; CU-Duffy 19, Ashley Murtha 18, Koenecke 13, Cassie Haag 11.
Digs: SMSU-Westby 24, Emilee Gutzmer 16, Burmeister 13, Anderson 9, Whitney Burmeister 8; CU-Dordan 27, Koenecke 16, Murtha 15, Konetchy 11.
Set Assists: SMSU-Gutzmer 48; CU-Konetchy 57.
Blocks (solo-assist): SMSU-Groth 2-2, Gutzmer 1-2, Diedrich 0-4, Thissen 0-3, Anderson 0-1; CU-Haag 1-3, Duffy 2-0, Koenecke 0-3, Michelle Graham 0-2, Murtha 0-2.
Concordia cut the Mustang lead down to a point on three occasions in the opening set, the last of which occurred during a 3-0 run to bring the score to 18-17 in favor of the Mustangs. McKell Anderson's second kill of the game ended the run and started a 7-2 closing run for SMSU.
Four of the Mustang's final five points were kills by Burmeister, with a pair coming on either side of a Rachel Westby ace.
"I thought the biggest thing was we really served the ball well and served the ball effectively," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "And they (Concordia) weren't passing the ball as well as they normally do, which helps you defensively. I thought when they made runs at us, it was kind of the same thing that they were doing to us. I thought we played hard and our kids were more efficient swinging. We're not making as many errors hitting-wise. We're talking about two of the best teams in the country and I thought it was just a battle and fortunately for us we were able to win it this time."
Westby also had momentum-swinging digs during the closing stages of the first set and finished with a team-high 24 digs. Setter Emilee Gutzmer also recorded a double-double for the Mustangs, totaling 48 set assists and 16 digs. Her setting aided the Mustangs to a .251 hitting percentage for the match. Abbey Thissen, a freshman, led the Mustangs with 15 kills, while Mary Groth had 13 kills, and Devin Diedrich and Anderson each had a dozen kills.
"We've got some balance and that's what we need to have to survive at this level," Culhane said. "I just think that one of the things is that our kids are just making less errors. I think we're playing harder and that's what it's going to take. It's far from over, but it was a great competitive situation for us to have to be in."
In the second set the Mustangs galloped out to an 8-2 lead, spurred by a 7-0 run with Burmeister serving. SMSU eventually built its lead to 19-10 and used the advantage to withstand a late charge by the Golden Bears, taking the set 25-20.
Concordia came back with a fury in Set 3, using a .405 hitting percentage to clobber the Mustangs 25-12.
The fourth set was much more even, featuring 14 tied scores and six lead changes. The last tie occurred at 18-all, but the Golden Bears were able to find the floor more often than the Mustangs, outscoring SMSU 7-3 to take the set 25-21 and even the match at two sets apiece.
Ellie Duffy (19) and Ashley Murtha (18) combined for 37 kills to lead the Golden Bear attack, while setter Amanda Konetchy recorded 57 set assists in the match.
Having seen a 2-0 lead disappear and facing a fifth set for the first time on the season, Culhane relayed to his team that playing a fifth set against the nation's top-ranked team would be a great learning experience for the second-ranked Mustangs.
"It's a great experience for us to get ready for regionals, because every match is going to be like this in the regionals," Culhane said. "We just talked about, let's make the plays. Let's respond to this situation. It was also a good experience for us because we hadn't been in a game five situation this year. That's going to be one of those things that you can look back at, it just gives us some experience in that situation. If we would run into that situation in regionals, we'll maybe be more comfortable with it."
The Mustangs looked perfectly at ease in the deciding set, as they never trailed in the race to 15. Thanks to a 5-0 run, the Mustangs took a commanding 10-4 lead. The teams traded points until Burmeister's 14th kill of the match gave SMSU the necessary 15 points and the conference title.
"Every time you beat a good team it's a great feeling," Burmeister said. "Concorida has been awesome the past five years, but beating them is a great feeling. Now we just have to stick to it and keep working hard in practice this next week."
Burmeister was named to the All-NSIC Tournament team, along with teammates Groth, Diedrich and Gutzmer. Duffy and Murtha were the other All-Tournament selections.
"We'll enjoy it tonight and we're excited about winning, but the regional (seeding) comes out tonight and then we play for real," Culhane said. "That's the stuff that really counts in a couple of weeks."
Despite the win over the nation's top-ranked team, the Mustangs will return to Concordia for the NCAA Central Region Tournament that takes place Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. The NSIC Tournament championship earned the Mustangs an automatic bid into the Central Region field.
SMSU will be making its ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament and 10th overall. The Mustangs were seeded second and will face Truman State (Mo.) a week from Thanksgiving. Concordia earned the top seed, while Wayne State (8) and Minnesota-Duluth (5) also received bids for the NSIC. Nebraska-Kearney received the third seed.