The Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team came through with a strong response to last week's loss to Concordia-St. Paul by opening the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament with a 3-0 sweep against Minnesota State-Mankato Friday in St. Paul.
Taking the court for the first time since what was their second loss of the season, the second-seeded Mustangs took charge early against the seventh-seeded Mavericks and rolled to a 25-11, 26-24, 25-16 win to advance to the semifinals of the first NSIC Tournament held since the 2007 season.
Sitting second in the Central Region rankings, the Mustangs (27-2 overall) are a lock for a spot in the upcoming region tournament, but the Mavericks (18-11) were playing for their postseason lives sitting outside of the top eight spots. From the start of Friday's match, the Mustangs showed they were just as hungry for a win as MSU, and held the Mavericks to a -.027 hitting percentage on their way to a blowout win in the opening set.
"I thought we did a nice job of stepping up into a situation that was hard because we had just played them a week ago and they had a lot more to play for than us," SMSU head coach Terry Culhane said. "They were in more of a pressing situation than we were, and we were able to come out and have a nice start."
Freshman McKell Anderson had a huge day for SMSU in the win, recording a career-high 18 kills to go along with eight digs. She led a Mustang attack that recorded a .379 hitting percentage for the match, a percentage that climbed as the match progressed, as SMSU had a .452 attack percentage in the third set.
"McKell was very good today," Culhane said. "Last time we played Mankato, they had a number of blocks against us, six or so solo blocks in Set 1 alone. They lead the conference in blocking, and I thought our kids hit well against them today."
MSU-Mankato11 24 16
SMSU25 26 25
Ace Serves: MSU-Chelsea Fogarty 3, Kelli Eidhardt, Ellie Van De Steeg, Kayla Berning; SMSU-Rachel Westby 2, Whitney Burmeister 2, Brooke Burmeister 2, Devin Diedrich.
Kills: MSU-Fogarty 11, Jill Storlie 10; SMSU-McKell Anderson 18, Mary Groth 8, Abbey Thissen 7, B. Burmeister 7, Diedrich 4.
Digs: MSU-Samantha Dale 15, Eidhardt 7; SMSU-Westby 11, Emilee Gutzmer 9, Anderson 8, Diedrich 6, W. Burmeister 5.
Set Assists: MSU-Van De Steeg 29; SMSU-Gutzmer 39.
Blocks (solo-assists): MSU-Storlie 0-1, Van De Steeg 0-1; SMSU-Groth 0-2, Diedrich 0-2, Thissen 0-2, B. Burmeister 1-1, Anderson 0-1.
SMSU was able to avoid the Mavericks' block Friday, as MSU finished with just one total team block. Senior middle hitter Mary Groth had eight kills in the match. Senior outside hitter Brooke Burmeister added seven kills, as did freshman right side Abbey Thissen. Burmeister surpassed 1,500 career kills in the match, becoming the third Mustang to accomplish that feat this season.
Culhane said Mustang freshman setter Emilee Gutzmer, who had 39 set assists in the match, did a good job of utilizing the middles as the match went on, which led to the increasing hitting percentage. With SMSU in a tight second set, she found Mary Groth for back-to-back kills to close the set 26-24 in favor of the Mustangs.
SMSU also had a strong day defensively, coming up with 47 digs to MSU's 35. Libero Rachel Westby had a team-high 11 digs, and Gutzmer added nine. Burmeister had a solid defensive match at the net with a solo block and a block assist.
The Mustangs move on to face Minnesota-Duluth, the third seed in the tournament, today at 4:30 p.m. SMSU swept the Bulldogs in a dominant home performance earlier in the season, but Culhane said the team can't take much stock in that.
"I thought we were able to play really well in (the first meeting), but they're a top five team in the country, so it's going to take a great effort for our team to beat them," Culhane said. "We're going to have to serve well, we're going to have to pass well and we're going to have to slow them down offensively. It should be a battle, and we're looking forward to it."