SMSU VOLLEYBALL: Mustangs prepare for Arkansas Tech in opening round of NCAA Central Region Tournament today

Independent file photo Members of the SMSU volleyball team celebrate a point during their Sept. 30 match against the University of Minnesota Duluth. The Mustangs will face Arkansas Tech in the first round of the NCAA Central Region Tournament tonight.

MARSHALL – The Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball team is back in the NCAA Tournament. That fact is nothing new for the Mustangs, who are making their 14th consecutive appearance in the postseason. Something that will be different, however, is that this time they’ll be in their own backyard.

For just the second time in program history, the Mustangs will play host to the NCAA Central Region Tournament, with the other coming in 2010.

Junior outside hitter Taylor Reiss said it’ll be nice to have that familiar feeling of their home court as well as having the home fans to their advantage.

“It’s always a good feeling,” Reiss said. “We’re familiar with this gym so that helps a lot and also we always get a lot of fans to come to our games; we have a good support from the community and surrounding towns. It should be a fun environment for us to play in.”

The Mustangs, who head into the tournament as the No. 1 seed after defeating Concordia-St. Paul in three sets in the NSIC Championship game, open against the No. 8 seed Arkansas Tech. The Golden Suns enter as the only team in the Central Region that is still undefeated at 35-0.

The Golden Suns average a hitting percentage of .290 and nearly 15 kills per set while holding their opponents to just .113 percent on the attack. Arkansas Tech is led by Amanda Milnick, who was named the Great American Conference Player of the Year and Setter of the Year, and Lexie Johnston who was the GAC Freshman of the Year.

SMSU coach Terry Culhane said these two players will be on their radar throughout the game and that they need to be ready against a highly offensive team.

“They’re a young team, but they’re really talented and very offensive. They have a setter who was their Player of the Year in their conference and a freshman who was the Freshman of the Year,” Culhane said. “They have a number of players who can take swings and have pretty good balance and a good coach. I think it’s hard to tell strictly off of film but there’s always the question of how either team is going to react at this point. We just need to be ready to play and are certainly going to have to play well if we want to win.”

SMSU weighs in with a record of 28-3 and are looking to take home their second Central Region Championship in four seasons with the other one being in 2014. They reached the Central Region Championship match last season before falling to the eventual NCAA Champion Concordia-St. Paul.

The Mustangs feature an array of offensive firepower, primarily from their two outside hitters in Reiss and Kaylee Burmeister. SMSU also stands tall up front with middles Sarina Smith and Brooke Borchardt while senior Megan Larson anchors the setter position.

Reiss said their biggest key on offense will be spreading the wealth to different positions but added they’re making sure to solidify their defensive presence as well.

“We’re just making sure that everyone is an option. Lately we’ve depended on our outsides a lot so we’re focused on making sure everyone is an option all the time,” Reiss said. “Right now we’re focused on the defensive side; I think we’ve been really good on offense all season, so right now we’re focused on defense and making sure we’re becoming a better defensive team.”

Larson said on the defensive side of things, their communication with each other will have to be sharp, especially when defending Milnick.

“We’ve been working a lot on communicating at the net when the setter’s up or when she’s back or who would be blocking the setter and things like that,” Larson said. “The back row players defending the setters is also a big key.”

Culhane hopes that the Mustangs’ strong play in the NSIC Conference and early season tournaments will be a benefit for their team as they head into the game and that they continue to find ways to win as the circumstances get even tighter.

“We played an extremely difficult schedule and part of that is our conference and other is the tournaments we played in. And then just the weekly grind of playing in our conference, which has hopefully helped us be a better team,” Culhane said. “We’ve found ways to win even though we haven’t been great all the time, and we have a very good record with a difficult schedule. We have some experienced players and hopefully they’re excited for this time and it’ll be a benefit for us.”

After more than a week off, Reiss said they’re just looking forward to getting back out onto the court and playing their brand of volleyball in front of their home crowd.

“I think just getting back to playing again,” Reiss said. “We’ve had a little bit of a break and it’s been awhile since the conference tournament, so just having that aspect of playing and that environment of playing in front of the home crowd is going to be fun as well.”