MARSHALL - With the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title on the line, the top-ranked Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball team took care of business, defeating No. 22 Minnesota State-Mankato 3-1 Friday night at the PE Gym and assuring themselves at least a share of the conference title.
"It feels awesome," said senior Devin Diedrich, who led the potent SMSU offense with 15 kills in the match. "It just feels awesome. There's not many more words to describe it."
With the 25-21, 24-26, 25-15, 25-17 victory, SMSU improves to 26-1 overall and 18-1 in the NSIC, while MSU drops to 17-10 overall and 11-8 in conference action. But the Mustangs have one of their toughest tests ahead of them today, when they take on No. 2 Concordia-St. Paul (24-3, 17-2 NSIC). The final regular-season match will determine if SMSU will win the NSIC title outright or share it with the Golden Bears.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Southwest Minnesota State senior outside hitter Brooke Burmeister, left, swings at the ball as two Minnesota State-Mankato players jump up for a block attempt in Friday night’s match at the PE?Gym. Burmeister finished the match with 12 kills.
"We don't want to share it," Diedrich said. "We have to work hard to get that by ourselves, and it'll be a battle so we need to be prepared. We all know that. Concordia's a good team and they have great players. But we have to look at ourselves and say we know we can do the same."
SMSU and CU are two of the hottest Division II teams right now, with the Mustangs riding a school-record 19-game winning streak and the Golden Bears winning their last 14, so the match should be one of the highlights of the season.
"The nice part about (Friday) is we know we can't do worse than sharing a conference title," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "And to play in this conference and get down to the last match of the year and you've only had one loss, we're proud of that fact. Clearly we have a tough task at hand. There's still a lot more at stake out there, conference-wise and regional ranking-wise. But I'm happy for our kids. It's a good recognition for them and they've worked hard to accomplish that. We'll enjoy (Friday night) and be ready to roll (Saturday). We know that it's going to be a battle."
MSU21 26 15 17
SMSU25 24 25 25
Serving (aces): SMSU-Whitney Burmeister 2, Brooke Burmeister 2, McKell Anderson, Devin Diedrich; MSU-Samantha Dale 2, Rachel Ott, Briel Henricksen.
Kills: SMSU-Diedrich 15, Abbey Thissen 14, Anderson 12, B. Burmeister 12, Mary Groth 10, Gutzmer 3; MSU-Chelsea Fogarty 15, Court Steinhauser 13, Jill Storlie 9, Kayla Berning 4.
Digs: SMSU-Rachel Westby 20, Gutzmer 13, Anderson 12, W. Burmeister 9, Kelsey Hennen 9, B. Burmeister 7; MSU-Dale 22, Ellie Van De Steeg 11, Kelli Elhardt 7.
Set Assists: SMSU-Gutzmer 60; MSU-Van De Steeg 41.
Blocks (solo-assists): SMSU-Groth 1-1, B. Burmeister 1-1, Diedrich 0-2, Thissen 0-2; MSU-Storlie 1-7, Steinhauser 0-5, Fogarty 0-3.
Despite so much at stake, Culhane said his team was ready to play Friday, though the Mustangs trailed early on. The Mavericks earned three kills and four ace blocks as they took a quick 10-3 lead in the first set and forced a SMSU timeout. After MSU recorded another kill to stretch its advantage to 11-3, the Mustangs kicked it into high gear, going on a 6-0 run.
"I think you have to give them credit," Culhane said. "They served tough and we didn't pass well. Then, they blocked us well. We didn't pass well, so they knew where we had to go. We just couldn't run all our options in our offense. That's the problem of not passing in volleyball."
SMSU continued to keep the pressure on and eventually knotted the score and then took a 14-13 lead on back-to-back attacking errors from MSU. After both teams continued to trade points back and forth, the Mustangs closed out the first set on a tip from freshman setter Emilee Gutzmer.
The Mavericks outhit SMSU, by a .294 hitting percentage to the Mustang's .250, in the second set to gradually gain a slight advantage late in the set and evened the match at 1-1 after winning the set 26-24. That's when Culhane had a heart-to-heart conversation with his players.
"I said, to be honest with you, I think they let one get away in Game 1 and we let one get away in Game 2," he said. "Now we need to serve effectively, pass and just be more consistent."
The Mustangs responded to the challenge, dominating the third set 25-15 after jumping out to an 11-2 lead on a kill from senior Mary Groth. SMSU recorded a .406 hitting percentage for the set.
Momentum from the third set carried over into the fourth, with SMSU taking a 10-5 lead on a kill from senior Brooke Burmeister. But MSU wasn't about to give up and sneaked back to within one point at 12-11 on a kill from Jill Storlie. After the Mavericks tied the score at 13-all, the Mustangs would take the lead for good after two straight kills from freshman Abbey Thissen and one from Groth.
From that point on, SMSU outscored MSU 10-4 to win the match. Five Mustang players recorded double-digit kills to complete a balanced attack. Following Diedrich's 15 kills were Thissen with 14 kills, and Burmeister and McKell Anderson with 12 apiece. Groth also added 10 kills. Gutzmer delivered the offense, earning 60 set assists in the match.
"I know there was a big block, but I knew I had to stay aggressive and not let that affect me and make me be careful," Anderson said. "I knew I had to be aggressive for my team."
Rachel Westby anchored the Mustang defense, tallying 20 digs, while Gutzmer had 13 and Anderson 12.
"I definitely feel really blessed to be playing and able to help the team," Anderson said. "It's been a really good season. I love the team and it's fun to do well together."
Before the match Friday, seniors Groth, Burmeister and Diedrich were honored.
"It's an emotional thing for me because I know it's coming to an end," Diedrich said. "And I'm trying not to think about it, but it's really hard to be here for five years and put your whole life, emotion and everything into it. But I just need to keep my head on straight and help bring my team as far as I can."
Together, the tremendous trio have a combined career kill total of 4,642. Diedrich and Groth surpassed the 1,500 career kill total in October, while Burmeister is currently 10 away.
Now, with the final match of the season on the line, the senior leadership may be tested. According to Diedrich, the team has to stay focused on the task in front of them.
"We have to stay focused and we have to do a lot of the things we did (Friday) to kind of get that task accomplished," she said. "And it's not a small one. We have a mountain in front of us right now. It's going to be about how we handle it and deal with it."
But like many others, Diedrich believes the Mustangs can win.
"I just think what it's going to take to win is for all of us to show up," Diedrich said. "We have to believe in ourselves. We have to believe in every single one of our teammates, not just the people on the floor, but the people on the bench as well. We just have to be 100 percent into it.