MARSHALL - As much as members of sports teams tend to say they treat critical contests like any other game, it would be difficult to downplay the weekend ahead for the Southwest Minnesota State volleyball squad. The Mustang players and coaches don't even try.
"This weekend is huge for us," said SMSU senior outside hitter Brooke Burmeister prior to practice on Wednesday.
Two wins away from their first outright conference title in school history. Two wins from stretching their school-record win streak to 20 games. Two wins away from earning the right to host the first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament held since 2007.
Southwest Minnesota State senior Mary Groth, right, tries to hit past the block of a pair of Winona State players during a home match last month. Groth and five other Mustang players were named to All-NSIC teams on Wednesday. ?
There's a lot at stake for the Mustangs, who enter the weekend as the top-ranked team in Division II volleyball. And to get what they want, they'll have to earn it.
The Mustangs close their NSIC schedule facing the same two teams they opened it against - Concordia-St. Paul and Minnesota State-Mankato. Though having lost three of their past four matches, the Mavericks head into Friday's 7 p.m. contest at the PE Gym in Marshall as the 22nd-ranked team in the nation and sport a 17-9 overall record (11-7 NSIC).
The Golden Bears, meanwhile, join SMSU as one of the hottest teams in the nation, having won 13 straight matches without dropping a set. The five-time defending national champions have won every single NSIC regular season title since 2003 (sharing it last year with Minnesota-Duluth) and are the No. 2 team in the nation with a 23-3 overall record (16-2 NSIC). They will meet up with SMSU at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Concordia defeated SMSU in straight sets in the Mustangs' conference opener in St. Paul in mid September, which stands as the team's only loss of the year. With three freshmen seeing significant action in that match - right side Abbey Thissen, setter Emilee Gutzmer and outside hitter McKell Anderson - the Mustangs have admitted that they may have been caught up in the moment of playing a perennial powerhouse on the road. Now battled tested after making their way through the rest of their NSIC schedule unscathed, they feel they're better prepared for the upcoming showdown.
"I wouldn't want to say that the nerves got the best of us [in the first meeting], but Concordia is a really good team and we just have to have the mentality that if they score on us, so what? They're supposed to," said Gutzmer, who was named the NSIC Freshman of the Year on Wednesday. "We just have to shake off those plays and earn each point one point at a time and I think we'll be fine. We're pretty confident going in."
The Mustangs have good reason to be confident this time around. For one, they're at home, where they've dropped only one set this season. They're also loaded with talent, as evidenced by the NSIC's release of all-conference players on Wednesday. The Mustangs have five All-NSIC first team honorees, including Gutzmer, Burmeister, senior middle blockers Mary Groth and Devin Diedrich, and Thissen. And libero Rachel Westby was named to the All-NSIC second team.
Starting since she was a freshman, Groth has been part of a few great SMSU squads, but she says this year's team, which has reached the nation's top ranking for the first time in school history, has a little something extra.
"I think with this team we all have that competitiveness and drive, not that we didn't have that with past teams, but this group is just really competitive," she said. "And we definitely have more depth this year than we've had in the past, especially on the right side with Abbey playing very well for us."
While integrating its new players this season, winning matches hasn't been an issue, but sometimes the team's consistency has. Last week in a road match against No. 16 Wayne State, the team committed 42 errors and had a .097 hitting percentage, but managed to overcome its struggles and pull out a win in Rice Auditorium for the first time since 2008.
The Mustangs recovered from the shaky performance with a sweep of Augustana on Saturday and feel good about their play entering this weekend's key matches. But like when his team entered the NSIC season, SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said the players have another adjustment to make as the postseason approaches.
"I think we're battled tested, we certainly have enough matches under our belts," said Culhane, who was named the NSIC Coach of the Year Wednesday. "Some of us didn't react very well and weren't ready for that stage to start the year, well, now the end of the year brings a new stage and you have to be ready to handle that, too.
"We've played a lot of young players and hopefully we can maintain that process. It's who we are and what we are and you hope they're ready to go. I don't think our kids will take [the weekend] lightly. We'll be ready to play and excited to play."
Depending on how they perform, these two upcoming matches could be the final two home matches for standout seniors Groth, Diedrich and Burmeister. If the Golden Bears defeat SMSU on Saturday, they would tie the Mustangs for the conference title (provided they also defeat Sioux Falls Friday), but would host the NSIC Tournament since they would hold a 2-0 edge over SMSU in the season series.
The Mustangs want to avoid that scenario from playing out, and they're not going to give up their spot in the driver's seat without a fight.
"Hosting is a huge advantage for us and we love getting to play in front of our fans and everything," Burmeister said. "It would be awesome to play on our court more than these last two games of our senior year and continue to do that, just stay as home as much as possible."