When the Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team begins play in the NCAA Central Region tournament today, its will be doing so for the ninth-consecutive year. It's not surprising, given the standard that has been set for the program under head coach Terry Culhane, that SMSU is back in the national tournament, but there is some intrigue as to exactly how the Mustangs have been able to put together their best season yet.
At 29-2 overall, which includes a program-best 19-game win streak, the Mustangs have won 94 percent of their contests so far this season and spent four consecutive weeks atop the AVCA Top 25 poll. An 18-2 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular season record had SMSU in a tie atop the league, the program's third such title, while a win over five-time defending national champion Concordia-St. Paul on Nov. 18 gave the Mustangs their first-ever NSIC tournament title.
A remarkable year, yes, with much credit due to a delicate balance between the team's veterans and its freshman.
Independent file photo
Southwest Minnesota State head coach Terry Culhane addresses his team between sets of a match earlier this season. The Mustangs open the 2012 NCAA?Division II?Central Region Tournament at 2:30 p.m. today against Truman State on the campus of Concordia-St. Paul.
"I think our freshmen have done a nice job of doing what roles we've put them in and they've held together really well," Culhane said. "I think one of the reasons that they've held together is our seniors have just done a great job of setting that standard and carrying their load. I just think that, from the seniors' standpoint, they've just been really unselfish in this whole process. The importance of being a team is more important than individual stuff for them."
SMSU's three seniors this season Brooke Burmeister, Mary Groth, and Devin Diedrich - all rank among SMSU's all-time kills leaders and have contributed heavily to the Mustangs' offense and defense this season.
Diedrich is fourth on the team with 297 kills, but has been the most prolific blocker for the Mustangs with 34 solo blocks and 75 block assists. Groth has found the floor for 329 kills, second-best for the Mustangs, and has 20 ace blocks and 65 block assists. Burmeister was the leading attacker for the Mustangs with 332 kills, utilized the team's top serve (39 aces) and picked up 236 digs while in the back row.
"They've all had great careers," Culhane said. "You could argue that up to this point we've never had, since I've been here anyway, three seniors who have had an impact for four years like those three have in our program. They've put the program first, and in this case they're only worried about winning."
In its pursuit of victory, Diedrich, a fifth-year senior, said the team has been fortunate to be able to rely on steady contributions from its talented freshmen.
"What they've done for our team so far this year is just huge," Diedrich said. "We've never really had a strong right side, and I think Abbey (Thissen) stepping in as a freshman and being able to handle that starting spot is awesome. And I think, not only just McKell (Anderson) and Emilee (Gutzmer) and Abbey, but also Whitney (Burmeister) and Kelsey (Hennen), them stepping in has played a big part in our team. ... This is the most competitive team that we've ever had since I've been here. I think the competitiveness that they bring in practice has made us what we are when we play."
Although Thissen has knocked down 308 kills on SMSU's right side and Anderson has been effective both attacking (239 kills) and defending (247 digs), the most welcome newcomer for the Mustangs has been setter Emilee Gutzmer.
With 1,288 set assists, Gutzmer ranks as the nation's second-most proficient distributor, spreading the wealth to SMSU's top four attackers who are within 35 kills of each other. She also has 249 digs, second-best for the Mustangs, who take on seventh-seeded and 13th-ranked Truman State (Mo.) at 2:30 p.m. today at Concordia-St. Pauls' Gangelhoff Center.
"I think it really just goes back to the girls that I'm coming in here with," Gutzmer said of her quick transition to the college game. "We have a lot of experienced players, which helps me a lot. A credit to all my teammates this year. Just coming in with all the experienced players has helped me become more comfortable and really get into the flow this year."
The balance in performance and play that has been on display throughout the season was showcased in SMSU's 3-2 win over No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul in the NSIC tournament championship and has given the Mustangs some added confidence to start the regional.
"It just shows that we can play with those top teams," Gutzmer said. "We were the top team at one point and we've been having a battle with Concordia this whole year. Even with the two losses, we pushed and had battles with them. Finally, that third time around, having success against them was a huge confidence boost, especially two weeks before regionals."
Diedrich, who had to watch the Golden Bears end SMSU's season as she was sidelined with a knee injury a year ago, sees the recent win over the region's top seed as a potential launching point for a greater achievement.
"I think that was something that we all needed, to prove to ourselves that we can do that," Diedrich said. "But I think that it happened and we're proud of it, but something so much bigger is in front of us right now. It was awesome to win, but the regional, it would be insane to win. We just have to stay focused and keep our heads right and play the way we played to win that, and I think we have a good shot."
According to Culhane, the Mustangs should be confident seeing as how they have essentially already played a regional tournament while winning the NSIC tournament.
"I hope that will help our confidence, but you never really know," he said. "We've had a little bit of a break here, so now the biggest concern I have as a coach is you never want to be content with winning the conference championship. We still have another major opportunity in front of us."
But in order to add to an already splendid season, the Mustangs must first remain balanced against Truman State.
"They're a good team and we really need to zero in on what we have to do. I think that's one of the things that we really did well against the three opponents we played in the conference tournament," Culhane said. "We didn't have anybody of our six on the floor that really broke down. That's something you always concern yourself with.
"Truman is big, they're athletic, and they're very similar to us in that they play in a real high-level conference. We know we're going to have to play well to beat them, but we knew that going in. Whoever we're going to play in the regional, you're going to have to put three good matches together."