We preview the volleyball season with a look at the talented roster poised to lead UND to a special 2013 campaign. Today we look at the upperclassmen returning and continue our preview by breaking down the sophomores and freshmen on Tuesday.
One of the most anticipated seasons of University of North Dakota volleyball is upon us. Friday, UND will open its 2013 campaign hosting some top talent in NCAA Division I volleyball in what looks to be the start of something special. UND returns nearly its entire roster from a Big Sky Conference Tournament-qualifying team from a season ago and aims to hunt down its competition atop the league ladder.
Head coach Ashley Hardee (88-33), now in his fifth season on the UND sidelines, has a pair of regular season conference titles and three straight Great West Conference Tournament titles but now the sights are set on a Big Sky crown. Last season in its first year in its new league, North Dakota finished 10-10 in conference play and earned the fifth seed in the postseason tournament. An accomplishment, for sure, but more lies ahead as Hardee's squad returns intact and with a few new added weapons.
This veteran group has helped usher UND into a new conference and has been charged with being leaders of what will now be a veteran squad. A versatile trio that led the way last season with a senior-less roster. That extra year of seasoning and leadership could pay huge dividends this year.
Included in those three seniors are co-captains Ronni Munkeby and Lisa Parlich. As two of the top scorers on the team, it's easy to see their impact on offense, but coach Hardee likes the improvements made defensively and how it will make the team tougher to beat.
"Our success hinges on our ability to play defense and stop teams and go on point runs," Hardee said. "We can shut down a team and score 6-7 points in a row and completly shut a team down. That's exciting to watch from a fan's perspective and everyone likes the offense but the ability to play defense is what sets you apart."
Munkeby earned All-Big Sky Conference Second Team accolades last season after another solid campaign. The Lisbon, N.D. native led the team in blocking with 119 total blocks with Parlich right behind with 115 total blocks. The duo was also effective offensively as Munkeby hit a team-high .284 with 364 kills and Parlich hit at a .263 clip with 325 finishes.
Parlich begins her final campaign in her familiar role as the steady threat in the middle. She produced double-digit kill totals in 17 matches last season had only five matches all season without at least eight kills. She's increased her kill and block totals in each of her three previous seasons and looks for continued success in her last go-around.
"Lisa is maybe the best one-footed slide hitter that we've had here in our program," Hardee said. "She improved her blocking this Spring and has rounded out her game nicely."
The third member of the senior class is one of the most versatile athletes on the roster and Hardee will rely on her to provide a spark. Ellen Krueger has seen time at setter and has transitioned to a hitter's role.
"I anticipate her being a versatile player for us, coming in where we need her and providing a spark and an energy boost," said Hardee. "She's very dynamic and lifts people up when she plays and she's a talented player herself as well."
A prime example came last season at Eastern Washington when Krueger contributed 19 assists in a reserve role to awaken a sluggish offense in a 3-1 win. The following week she charted back-to-back 10-kill matches in sweeps of North Dakota State and Southern Utah. Her value will be hard to measure in the boxscore.
This talented junior class is six deep. It starts with the setter-- the quarterback of the offense--
"Nikki is a fantastic athlete and is becoming more offensive now to the point where we can count on her to score as well as lead the offense," Hardee said. "We did some things with her this Spring and she's improved her blocking as well. We're starting to see some leadership out of her as well."
Husfeldt, who amassed 1,300 helpers a season ago, has become an offensive weapon as well. Triple-doubles aren't out of the question for the Andover, Minn. native as registering more kills could become part of her arsenal. In the fall intrasquad, Husfeldt killed 10 balls and had 14 digs to go along with her 45 assists. She had 18 matches with at least 40 assists a season ago and she has plenty of options in this offense.
Lexi Robinson is one of those options as the team's leading point producer last season. Robinson killed 397 balls a year ago and chipped-in with 61 total blocks for a solid sophomore campaign that earned her an All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention nod.
"Lexi is a very explosive, dynamic player and a six-rotation player. We'll look for some leadership from her," Hardee admitted on Robinson entering her junior season.
Moving back to the right side is Felicia Ulrich, who played on the outside last year. Ulrich finished fourth on the team in kills (209) and etched seven matches with 10+ kills. Included in that total was a career-high 21-kill match in a win over Eastern Washington (Nov. 10). The team was 6-1 when she went over the double-digit mark in kills in 2012.
"Felicia is a skilled player that can attack it where she wants to," Hardee noted. "She won't overpower you but she can move the ball around and has a lot of versatility to her game."
Local product Emily Asche (Grand Forks, N.D./Red River) had a breakout performance in last year's UND Classic, etching a career-high 11 kills in the sweep of Green Bay and six days later matching that kill total with out an error in the win vs. Alabama A&M. She looks to see extended time on the outside this season.
"She's got a cannon for an arm," said Hardee. "You can see her game starting to break out right now."
Another athlete vying for time on the outside is Jessica Fontes. After red-shirting last season, Fontes is eyeing to crack the lineup this season. She comes to UND with two seasons remaining after transferring from Northland Community College.
"Jessica is arguably the best athlete on the team. She has to make up for her size with her athletic skills and she does," Hardee admitted.
Dani McNallan returns after playing in all 32 matches and making six starts in the back row. She recorded 193 digs, including six matches with double-digit totals.
Overall, this veteran corps will direct a UND squad that seems well-positioned for a late postseason run. Picked fourth in the Big Sky Conference Preseason Poll, North Dakota can look at eight five-set matches last season as an area for improvement, going 2-6 in that category a year ago. Hardee believes his team has the skill and the makeup needed to be a contender.
"We will be able to change and do things this season based on a strength of another team than we have in the past thanks to our versatility. In addition, defensively this is a better team than last year."
Meet the rest of the UND team (sophomores, freshmen) in Tuesday's preview.