GRAND FORKS, N.D.- Anticipation meets reality this week as the University of North Dakota volleyball team officially reports for its first practices in preparation for the 2012 season. The heightened anticipation stems from UND's move to the Big Sky Conference, where it hopes that bigger things are in store for a team that is already well-versed in success.
"We're really looking forward to Big Sky play," head coach Ashley Hardee said. "It provides us opportunities we haven't had in the past. It gives us opportunities for all-Americans, all-region players and other things that we haven't had the chance to qualify for during our transition. But, most importantly, it gives us that NCAA automatic qualifier that winning the Big Sky would bring. There are a lot of real positives as we enter the Big Sky era."
Armed with three straight Great West Conference tournament titles in tow, UND aims to continue its run of postseason success. It will have to do it with a very young roster that does not have a senior and will rely on leadership from its junior and sophomore classes.
"We return both middles in Lisa Parlich and Ronni Munkeby," Hardee said. "Ronni played a little bit on the right for us but she's always been a quick attacker so her sliding to the middle won't be a big adjustment for her. Nikki Husfeldt, our setter, returns as well as Ellen Krueger, who may be sliding over into an attacker role. The four of those players anchoring down the middle and right side of the floor for us-- we're going to lean a lot on them."
Those four as well as returners Felicia Ulrich, Emily Asche and Lexi Robinson are all charged with helping to fill the void left by three starters, in particular, hitters Devin Trefz and Annika Smed. Add in a pair of transfers, Kyle Everett and Jessica Fontes, to a talented freshman class that's nine deep and UND's coaching staff is excited for the journey with this young squad to begin.
"It's a new group this year with the graduation of five players," Hardee admitted. "But, we're excited about getting into the gym and getting rolling with the new players. We start with a great preseason tournament at Texas A&M. We open with USC, a Final Four team from a year ago, and then follow with two more NCAA tournament teams (Texas A&M, Texas State) so it's a great start to the season for us that will give us a feel right away of NCAA tournament-level volleyball."
Following the regular-season opening tournament at Texas A&M, the team returns home to host the UND Classic on Aug. 30 and Sep. 1. Included in the three-match slate is a rivalry match against South Dakota. UND will see other key non-conference rivalries on the docket with road matches at South Dakota State (Sept. 4) and North Dakota State (Oct. 9) as well. It's those road matches that Hardee sees as a recipe for success in its new league.
"Playing both SDSU and NDSU, those rivalry games will help us out down the road as we get to a possible NCAA Tournament game in November," Hardee said. "Our road matches in the BSC will be critical- new gyms and new towns, we'll have to be really good on the road."
The home slate features the UND Classic (Green Bay, South Dakota, Stephen F. Austin) then the grueling home-and-home with each of the other 10 Big Sky schools.
"We open BSC play with both Montana schools in here (Montana, Montana State). Looking ahead, we have the reigning Big Sky champion, Northern Colorado and Portland State- the league champs from two years ago," said Hardee. "There are lots of other quality teams as well. Sacramento State has a history of being in the Top 25 and Eastern Washington returns a bunch of talent including an all-conference outside hitter so we'll have to be on top of our game to defend our home court."
Hardee, who is 73-16 in his three seasons on the UND sidelines, will be gunning for the school's fifth-straight 20-win season. His 2011 squad finished the year with a school-record 26 wins, capturing its third consecutive GWC tournament title. UND finished the 2011 campaign with an RPI of 52, easily topping every Big Sky school. BSC champ UNC was closest at 99 with Sacramento State a distant third at No. 159.
If past achievements can help predict future accomplishments, North Dakota is primed for big things in 2012.