Gearing up for the weekend
No. 8 SMSU looks to get back in win column with N.D. road trip
MARSHALL — After falling short in a five-set battle against top-ranked Wayne State last weekend, the No. 8 Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team is looking to get back in the win column with a pair of matchups in North Dakota against Minot State and UMary this weekend.
“We’ve looked back at some of the film from Saturday against Wayne and tried to evaluate some of the things that we think we can better at this week and really focused on ourselves defensively at the net blocking and trying to get kids in the back row to defend a little bit more outside of their space,” SMSU head coach Tyler Boddy said, adding that he wants the team to really use last week’s film as a learning tool to grow as a unit.
While it’s common for teams to drop in the polls after a loss regardless of the opponent, the Mustangs jumped up a spot after last week’s Wildcat battle. SMSU led 2-1 heading into the fourth game before the Wildcats rallied to pull away for a 25-16 victory in the fourth game and ran away with the fifth game 15-4.
“Our biggest takeaway is that we can compete with and try to beat some of the best teams in the country. That’s obviously always our goal and there are a lot of teams that can play at the caliber of Wayne and that’s just what we’ve got to be ready for,” Boddy said.
“We played tough for a good chunk of it but obviously not well enough to come out on top, but I thought it was fun. It was a great environment in our gym and it obviously would have been more fun to win, but I think the biggest takeaway is going to be finding the positives in that we competed hard for as long as we did and now we just need to find another gear to be able to put the match away.”
The Mustangs excelled defensively against Wayne State, with McKenzie Tolk leading the way with 21 digs and setter Alisa Bengen and outside Leah Jones finishing with 15 and 11 respectively. Tolk’s 5.06 digs per set are also fourth in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference this season, but UMary will bring some defensive challenges of its own.
The Mauraders’ back row is third in the conference in digs per set and boasts five players with more than 100 digs already this season. Only SMSU’s Tolk and Bengen, at 182 and 115, have hit that mark.
Heading the back line is 2019 Marshall High School graduate Kaia Sueker. The Tigers’ former All-Conference and All-Section selection now leads the Marauders with 4.53 digs per set on the year while outside hitter Ally Gruber has another 2.85. They’ve tallied 163 and 125 total digs respectively and Gruber’s 115 kills are also a team high.
As a team, the Marauders are also third in the conference in digs per set and fifth in the conference in blocks per set.
The Mustangs rank last in the conference in opponent blocks per set at 2.67, nearly a half block per set more than the 14th-place Sioux Falls Cougars.
“We need to be ready for longer points and just the persistence of our kids offensively, you know, being ready for a second, third or fourth swing,” Boddy said. “It’s not easy to score against anybody in our league and it’s good for them to have that many kids up there in digs. I think just coming ready to play because both those teams this weekend, we’re going to get their best and we need to be ready to go.”
Both UMary and Minot State have struggled to start the season. The Marauders have started 0-4 in conference play and have lost each of their last five matches. UMary was swept in each of those matches except for a five-set loss against Minnesota Crookston on Saturday.
Minot State is in a similar boat. While they were able to take down Crookston for a five-set win on Friday, the Beavers have still struggled this season. They’ve lost six of their last seven matches — getting swept in five of those six losses — and are sitting on a 2-10 record so far this season. Still, the 9-2 (2-1 NSIC) Mustangs aren’t taking anything for granted.
“[We] really have just tried to focus on our team and what’s happening on our side of the net to try to be the best version of our team that we can be,” Boddy said when asked about the upcoming opponents. “That really has been our focus and we know that both of those teams are going to carry play back at us and everybody in our league can get up and swing at the ball and have kids who can defend and block.”
While the Beavers throw everything they can at the Mustangs, it’s been an ugly start to the season so far. They currently rank in the conference in hitting percentage, assists and kills per set and opponent hitting percentage.
The Mustangs, on the other hand, rank fifth in the conference in hitting percentage at .251. Leading the way for SMSU so far are Emma VanHeel and Karli Arkell, ranking 13th and 17th in the conference in hitting percentage at .333 and .306. Arkell and VanHeel also rank 10th and 13th in the NSIC in blocks per set, presenting a difficult challenge to a Minot State team that has struggled so far this season as a unit.
Despite some growing pains as a group, the Beavers have had some standout individuals in the back line. Kendal Braun and Maggie Machado rank 12th and 16th respectively in the conference in digs per set. Braun is also 10th in the NSIC in service aces per set at 0.39.
SMSU has three players in the top 20 in the conference in aces per set, with CanHeel and Tolk sitting at fifth and sixth and Brooklyn Kusler ranking 13th.
It’s been said many times that there are no easy wins in NSIC volleyball matches. In a conference with five teams ranked in the top 10 of the coaches poll and another two teams receiving votes, this may be the closest thing the Mustangs have to an easy weekend on their remaining schedule. The Mustang matchup in Minot will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday while the first serve against UMary is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday in Bismarck, N.D. Live stats and video of both matches can be found online at SMSUmustangs.com