Mark Pryor about his team. A dedication to tirelessly go at maximum effort and be thrilled with the outcome of the work. It’s a theme that’s permeated the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center during the first fall practices in preparation for the upcoming 2014 University of North Dakota volleyball season.Endless Dedication. It’s a saying that keeps finding its way into conversations with first-year head coach
“My style is simple, we go as hard as we can for as long as we can and accept the results,” Pryor said. “I want our kids to show endless determination-- that if a ball hits the floor it almost feels as if it’s the end of the world, in some respects. We’ve been going hard and there are some long practices and the kids are sore and hurting. But, there is also endless joy that they are thankful for this opportunity and how lucky they are to do it. In the end, you’ll have a group of women that our fans can be unbelievably proud in their effort.”
Pryor inherits a roster of nine returners to go along with seven newcomers, many of whom will vie for playing time right away. With three teams laying claim to being the defending Big Sky champions (Portland State, UND both co-regular season champs and Idaho State the league tournament champions), a wide-open league race begins with that first step of qualifying for the now eight-team postseason tournament. The regular season champion will host the tournament this season, another goal to shoot for as UND continues its push towards qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in its brief Division I era. When it comes to who will start at certain positions in that title defense, Pryor again had a simple solution: look at the numbers.
“We stat so much during practice, if the numbers are there in practice we need to give them a longer leash and give them an opportunity,” he said. “They know going in if they are going to have a primary role or more of a supporting role up front based on the numbers. This also helps because they’ll know how to prepare themselves.”
What’s the game plan, then, to replace the leadership of two of the best hitters in the program’s history in All-Big Sky First Teamer Ronni Munkeby and second teamer Lisa Parlich in addition to four-year all-around player Ellen Krueger? Again, the answer was simple: time will tell.
“Within a month, everyone will know who is providing the leadership and who’s running the show,” Pryor said. “That will develop over time so I don’t know how important electing captains really is at this point. The blueprint is an ensemble cast and that’s by design.
“The first part of leadership is being responsible for yourself. We don’t want you to talk about it, we want you to do it. Being selfless is much more important than being selfish. A good culture will out-plan and out-perform any strategy. By everyone doing their job, it’ll inspire others to do theirs and do it better. We’re not asking people to do things they can’t do. Control what you can control.”
UND’s roster features 16 players, nine returning from its Big Sky Conference regular season co-championship and seven stepping onto campus for the first time eager to crack the lineup.
The quarterback of the volleyball court, the setter, runs the offense and is a key to success. North Dakota has a luxury at the position with a five-year player in All-Big Sky Conference Second Team member Nikki Husfeldt returning along with freshman phenom Sydney Griffin added to the fold.
“We’ll have a nice mix of a proven, get-it-done player and a newer player that can do some things differently and is used to winning and competing,” Pryor said. “Both want to do well and want to beat each other. Don’t be surprised to see both early in the season.”
Husfeldt comes off a solid junior campaign that saw her lead the league in assists per set at 10.97 and pushed her within 10 of 4,000 assists for her career. That total ranks third in program history and is just 35 short of second place at the school.
Griffin, the highly touted rookie from Marshall, Minn., was named an AAU All-American and was the MVP of the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association All-Star game over the summer. She will look to adjust quickly to the speed of the collegiate game in order to contribute immediately.
Senior Lexi Robinson goes into her final season looking to improve upon a junior season that was mired with injury midway through the campaign. When healthy, Robinson possesses one of the most lethal swings in the conference and can take over matches as witnessed by a 23-kill performance in a match as a freshman and 42 career matches with double-figure kill totals.
Big Sky Co-Freshman of the Year Anna Pioske returns on the outside as well.
“Anna is battling to be on the court. She wants to be there, and her teammates and staff would like her on the court,” Pryor said. “It would be a big plus for the program if she can be on floor, but right now, your guess is as good as mine.”
Fellow senior Jessica Fontes played very sparingly last season but her athleticism may help her scratch her way into the rotation a little more regularly. She, along with freshman Julia Kaczorowska, will push in practice. Junior transfer Kristen Giesbrecht gives UND much-needed depth on the outside, especially as a player that coach Pryor says does not make a lot of errors that cost the team points.
Kaczorowska has the game to be a six-rotation hitter for Pryor in the future.
“I’m already surprised how good she is on defense already,” he said. “Long term she’ll be an outside for us. She can play anywhere, she can put a ball away and she understands the game.”
One of the bright spots of the early fall practices is foreign exchange student Georgie Rowe. Unscouted and not recruited, Rowe fell directly in the lap of the UND coaching staff when she wanted to walk-on and she’s more than earned her spot.
Coach Pryor on Rowe: “She is an absolute surprise. She shows up the first day and the entire coaching staff all thought ‘Where did she come from?’. She’s a smart player that does exactly what we need. She’s a ball control outside hitter that makes smart swings, is steady and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Faith Dooley, a standout at Central Cass High School, will jump right into a spot vacated by the graduations of Ronni Munkeby and Lisa Parlich. Dooley hit a whopping .405 as a senior with 432 kills and more than a block per set in her prep career which included three all-region selections.
Chelsea Moser made 11 starts last season, recording five different matches with at least five kills. The athletic Moser, who also competes on the UND track and field team in the jump events, will have an opportunity to garner even more playing time in her sophomore season.
Magda Zietek, a transfer playing her final season, was poised to lock down a spot in the middle but has seen time on the right side in fall practices.
“Right side is a toss up,” Pryor admits. “We have three kids (Emily Thompson, Felicia Ulrich, Zietek) over there that are all competing. We added Magda to the mix because we need more offensive production over there. By the numbers, none has separated themselves at this point, but that will come soon.”
Thompson is a returning player that made 18 starts last season and collected 223 kills. Her height and tall attack point is an asset on the right side.
Senior Ulrich aims to grab more playing time after playing in just nine matches a season ago. She is a seasoned vet, however, logging over 300 kills combined in her first two seasons, including hitting .305 as a freshman on 223 attacks.
Zietek comes to UND from Prairie View A&M for her final college campaign. As a Panther, she hit .250 with 228 kills and can make an immediate impact thanks to her versatility both in the middle and on the right side.
“Magda strikes the ball well and she may have the best arm swing on the team, the ball really comes off her hand differently,” Pryor said of the transfer. “She’s a little stronger, being a senior, and she can help us from a leadership standpoint. She’s good in drills, but when we start to play-- that switch comes on and she loves to compete.”
Two-year starting libero Lauren Clarke anchors a back line that looks solid in the early going. Clarke, only a junior, has already surpassed 1,000 digs in her career and sits 14th in the UND record books in that category with two full seasons to play.
Versatile McKenzie Hart returns in the back as well and will chiefly hold down a defensive specialist spot but can play up front and can also spell Clarke at libero as well. Hart is an adept server, tying for the team lead in service aces (23) last season.
Skylar Hildebrand will look to push for some time immediately. A freshman who serves the ball well and can play any of the three backrow positions, she will give UND a little more stability in serve receive.
The public gets its first chance to see the 2014 edition on Aug. 26 at 7:00 p.m. with the Green & White scrimmage at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. UND will honor last year’s Big Sky Conference championship team before the exhibition.
Volleyball season preview