MARSHALL - Accept. Adapt. Respond.
A key quality that separates the good teams from the great teams is an ability to deal with adversity.
In 2011, the Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team was dealt a major blow when All-American middle blocker Devin Diedrich saw her season come to an end before it began due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. The Mustangs' response: advancing further than any team in program history by making the NCAA Division II Sweet 16.
After receiving a medical redshirt, Diedrich, one of the team's emotional leaders, is back for the 2012 season, as are many of the key contributors from last year's squad. The Mustangs appear to be in prime position to make their ninth straight NCAA tournament appearance. But they know they can't take anything for granted.
"Anything can change, anything can happen, so we just have to take it as it comes and go from there," said senior middle blocker Mary Groth, a 2011 second team All-American.
SMSU, which finished the 2011 season 25-7 overall and 17-3 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, opened fall practice on Monday.
The team's first practice was a special experience for Diedrich as she took the court with her teammates to begin her final season.
"I can't even really describe the feeling. It's awesome," Diedrich said. "This is basically my life and these girls are my family. I was a part of the team (last year), but being on the court is different than being on the bench.
"Being out there to lead throughout games, that kind of thing, that's what I'm really excited about. Getting back into it and being able to give everyone my energy. It's kind of hard to produce energy from the sideline."
Outside hitter Brooke Burmeister was one of the players who took over a larger role to help the Mustangs overcome Diedrich's absence in 2011. She led the Mustangs in kills for the season with 516 and earn second team All-America honors.
With Diedrich back in the mix, SMSU head coach Terry Culhane will have a powerful group of hitters at the net in 2012.
"Devin brings a lot of athleticism to the court and she just gives us one more real good arm in the front row," said Culhane, who enters his ninth season as head coach. "With her and Mary as both middles, they're both really good middles, and then when we have Brooke sitting on the outside, that just gives us more firepower. Hopefully we don't have to be quite so dependent on one or two kids like we have been in the past."
The matter of who will set those hitters the ball is one of the few questions the Mustangs have for the upcoming season.
Cara Carson has had that job over the past few years. Carson finished second in the nation in assists per set (12.52) during her senior season in 2011. She graduated along with libero Brittany Wenzel, who finished ninth all-time at SMSU with 1,254 career digs.
The Mustangs have two candidates to take over for Carson at setter. One is sophomore Jenna Duddleston, a sophomore transfer from Barry University (Fla.). The other is freshman Emilee Gutzmer, a two-time Minnesota All-State setter who played at Jordan.
"That's still going to be determined, as far as the competition goes, if we'll use one of them or both of them," Culhane said. "We think they're both very capable of running a college offense and that's a huge plus for us.
"We feel very good about the setter position and we also really like the personality they bring to the team, and we think that's really important."
SMSU will also have a different player at libero this season, but it will be a familiar face. Junior Rachel Westby is ready to take over that spot after playing as a hitter during her first two years on the team. She was second on the squad last year with 456 digs.
With seasoned veterans occupying most of the starting spots, Diedrich said she thinks this could be the deepest team she's been around and expects the young players to give the upperclassmen a healthy push.
A competitive environment in practice will be helpful for the Mustangs as they prepare to fight through their schedule in the loaded NSIC and Central Region. Concordia-St. Paul, which defeated SMSU in straight sets in last year's Sweet 16 and went on to win the national title, is one of many challenges the Mustangs will have ahead of them.
Diedrich, Groth and Burmeister have experienced a lot of success in their years at SMSU, but have yet to advance through the region and get to the Elite Eight. Diedrich feels this year's Mustangs team has the talent to reach those new heights.
"I think a lot of people automatically think they can't do it just because Concordia is going to get through, and why wouldn't they think that? I mean, they've won the national championship the last five years in a row," Diedrich said.
"It's really going to take looking deep down into ourselves and honestly believing that we're a team that has a shot at that, and I really do believe that we are."
SMSU will open its season Aug. 31 against Hillsdale College (Mich.) at a tournament hosted by Concordia-St. Paul.