We continue our two-part season outlook of the 2013 UND volleyball team with the sophomores and freshmen. The upperclassmen were spotlighted in part one.
While the 2013 edition of the North Dakota volleyball team is labeled "veteran", there will be significant contributions from the younger athletes on this squad including a handful that aim to crack the starting lineup.
"Our success hinges on our ability to play defense and stop teams and go on point runs," UND head coach Ashley Hardee said.
The sophomore class is key in that regard, with three back-row players who are pivotal to cleaning up anything that gets beyond the talented blockers up front. Look no further than libero Lauren Clarke to find a key cog in the UND system defensively.
Clarke stepped right in to the starting libero job as a rookie, playing in all 121 sets last year. She tallied 518 digs-- fourth-most in the Big Sky Conference-- a total that also ranks fourth in UND single-season records.
"Lauren is a very high-IQ player in the backrow, she finds herself in the right place more often than not," Hardee said. "I think we'll see some improvement from her in technique and she's a better serve receiver than she was last year."
Also in the back row are defensive specialists Naomi Dahl and McKenzie Hart. Dahl saw limited action last season, appearing in 25 sets, registering 21 digs, a service ace and an assist. Her standout match came on Sep. 29 in that epic win over Sacramento State that saw UND rally from down 17-4 in the final set.
Hart played in all but one set last season, making eight starts as a frosh. Her 202 digs were fourth-most on the team but Hardee believes she can chip-in on the attack as well.
"McKenzie is a tough, hard-nosed player and has settled into that middle back position," Hardee noted. "She can attack it a bit from the back row, not so much looking to generate kills but getting productive swings. Her serve has gotten better and she has become a staple in that back row."
Emily Thompson has drawn the attention of the coaching staff and figures to work herself into the mix on the right side. After just nominal time on the court last year, Thompson could be a factor in UND's arsenal for the forseeable future.
"Emily has had a fantastic Spring and could be the future on the right side for us," Hardee said. "Offensively, she's getting more aggressive and blocking-wise she's been lights out this fall."
Four new faces join a pair of redshirts to make up a six-person freshman class. Chelsea Moser and Jasmine Robinson each came into the program last year and have a full year of Division I seasoning and are acclimated to the college game.
"Chelsea trained in the middle but we've moved her to the outside and she's in the mix," said Hardee. "Right now, with her blocking ability and length, she's looking at the opportunity to grab the starting outside hitter position.
"Jasmine is coming off an injury in her final year of high school and trying to get back into the swing of things. She's looking to crack that defensive specialist group and get some playing time."
Four incoming recruits come highly lauded and some will push others for court time right away. Hitters Anna Pioske and Kellie Schmit, despite loads of talent ahead of them, will challenge the upperclassmen in the rotation.
"Anna is a very skilled volleyball player, she's played some high club-level volleyball already," Hardee said. "She'll compete right away for a starting spot.
"Kellie is a fascinating athlete, almost mesmerizing to watch. She flies around the court with unbelievable body control," said Hardee. "She's still learning the game and where she'll fall in terms of position."
The rookie class also includes a defensive specialist, Candice Yager, and a setter, Meagan Hollis.
"Candice is a very gifted athlete in the back row with great balance," Hardee said. "She can make plays and is arguably the best server on the team and will definitely contribute as a freshman.
"Meagan is battling some injuries but she comes in and provides some depth and when she gets 100 percent we'll see what she can do."
The young group gets a chance to show its wares this weekend when North Dakota hosts the four-team UND Classic. The round-robin tournament begins Friday with three matches and concludes with three more on Saturday against a formindable field. UND's opener is against No. 15 Iowa State Friday at 7:00 p.m. with UND facing South Dakota State Saturday at 1:00 p.m. and Texas A&M later that evening to close the tourney.
"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."