The start of the 2012 UND volleyball season is met with both high expectations and questions surrounding the beginning of this historic campaign. North Dakota is in a new league (Big Sky Conference), graduated five seniors from last season, has ten new faces on its roster and will endure its most imposing schedule in its history. Plenty of questions to be answered, but a coaching staff and a young, talented team all focused on thinking big.
Head coach Ashley Hardee heads into season four at the helm of the UND ship, leading North Dakota to a pair of regular season titles and three straight Great West Conference tournament crowns. But, with the move to the Big Sky Conference, UND has set its sights on attaining goals that previously were out of reach.
"We're really looking forward to Big Sky play," Hardee said. "Not only does it provide us with opportunities for All-Americans, All-region players and other things that we haven't the opportunity through the transition to earn, but obviously there's the NCAA automatic qualifier that winning the Big Sky would bring."
North Dakota would have to do so without the aid of a single senior on its roster. But, Hardee feels confident in his nucleus of returners that are adept at winning and solidify the middle of the floor for his team.
"We return both middles in our captains: 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. She's one of our captains and her leadership will be critical heading into the Big Sky.
"Lisa had some breakout performances last year and I'm looking forward to what she can accomplish this year. She has the ability to lead us offensively and defensively."
Another junior, Ellen Krueger, may be sliding over into an attacker role after finishing her sophomore year with a flourish.
"Ellen provides a lot of versatility, much like Ronni," Hardee continued. "Ellen was nothing short of sensational (career-high nine kills in championship win over Utah Valley) in last year's conference tournament."
The fourth member of the junior class is transfer Jessica Fontes, who Hardee labeled a skilled attacker and a tremendous athlete. She'll bring experience to the squad and will compete for an outside hitter job.
Nikki Husfeldt, the team's floor general as the setter, returns following a season that saw her win GWC Freshman of the Year accolades.
"Nikki is probably our best all-around athlete on the team and that's significant in her role as setter," Hardee said. "She has a great feel for the game and understanding of our offense. We're going to lean a lot on the four of those players that anchor down the middle and right side of the floor for us." (Munkeby, Parlich, Krueger, Husfeldt)
She's joined by six other players with a full season of college volleyball already under their collective belts for a sophomore class that will be key in UND's potential run at the postseason.
"Lexi Robinson is a high-energy player on the floor and very reliable as well," said Hardee. "With her big arm and arm speed, we'll depend on her to take more swings this year. Felicia Ulrich is another very versatile player, which will allow us to give teams different looks. She can play both left and right and she hit over .300 as a freshman.
"Emily Asche made tremendous progress during her freshman year. She's a very aggressive attacker, which is one of her strengths. Kim Kuechle has also improved each year and is coming off her best spring yet. She's made significant strides in her blocking which will be huge for us. Dani McNallan gained a ton of experience in her first year as well and I'm excited about what she can do for us. She has tremendous balance and foot speed."
Another sophomore, Kyle Everett, comes to UND from rival South Dakota, so she'll be well-versed in the quickly-growing North Dakota volleyball tradition and the program's steady climb upwards.
"Having already played one year in college, Kyle brings our young team some experience and some competitiveness," Hardee said.
To say that UND has a big freshman class might be an understatement. The class is nine deep with all but one, redshirt frosh Naomi Dahl, coming straight from the high school ranks looking to make an immediate impact.
"Naomi is coming off her redshirt year and gained valuable experience," said Hardee. "She's a very good athlete and showed a knack for making big plays on defense last spring."
"Chandler has played in many high-level club tournaments and comes in with a lot of skill," he said. "I expect her to compete for an outside hitter job. Chelsea is a great jumper and a tremendous athlete. She can also play multiple positions and has a very bright future. Lauren comes from one of the best club teams in the country, she was the libero for their top team. She's a tough player and is willing to throw her body around the court."
"Kayla played for a top club. She can set and be a defensive specialist," Hardee noted. "Tiffany is a skilled and physical attacker and as she gains experience, she can become a significant player for us."
Three home-grown North Dakotans finish off the talented rookie class. McKenzie Hart and Emily Thompson both hail from successful ND Class B schools while Jasmine Robinson comes to UND after an injury-plagued career at Grand Forks Red River High.
"McKenzie was a state champion in high school (Langdon, 2009 and 2011) and brings that championship toughness to us," Hardee said. "She could find her way on the court for us as a freshman. Emily brings length and athleticism to our program and she can be a fantastic player for us real soon. Jasmine is coming off an injury in her senior year at Red River. She's 100 percent now and we're excited about what she can do."
All told, 20 total players dot the UND roster for 2012 all focused on continuing to raise the bar for this blossoming program. They'll get their feet wet right away this Friday when they head to College Station, Tex. for the Texas A&M tournament. UND will play three matches at the two-day event, all of whom qualified for the NCAA tournament last season, including fifth-ranked Southern California--who made the Final Four last year-- as UND's opening opponent.
"It's a great start to the season for us and gives us a feel right away of NCAA tournament-level volleyball," Hardee said. "You can't win these types of games without playing them."