GRAND FORKS, N.D.-- The reigning Big Sky Conference regular season and tournament champion North Dakota Fighting Hawks officially opened their defense of their titles early Tuesday morning during the first day of practice. The squad reported for a 12:01 a.m. opening session for the second straight season as they attempt to once again be the first team in the gym and the last one still playing come tournament time.
Excitement abounds with the coming season as three of UND's four All-Big Sky Conference First Teamers are back for their senior seasons. Included in that mix is the league's player of the year and the school's first-ever Division I all-America player (VolleyballMagazine.com honorable mention) setter Sydney Griffin. She'll once again have plenty of weapons at her disposal with three-time all-league middle hitter Faith Dooley and last season's conference newcomer of the year Tamara Merseli.
Also returning is sophomore Alivia Fraase, who nailed down the libero gig as a redshirt freshman last year and tallied 583 digs, tied for second-most in school history. Also in the back is junior Tamika Brekke, a starter in the final nine contests last year in the back, and senior Teodora Tepavac, who led the returnees in service aces a season ago. A healthy Julia Kaczorowska also returns after seeing her last two seasons cut short. North Dakota is just 5-4 in matches that she has missed or left early due to injury over the past two years combined (42-19 in matches she finished).
The middle opening left by graduating senior Chelsea Moser could be gobbled up by junior Jordan Vail, who showed flashes of dominance in limited action last year. She hit .304 with 100 kills and could be a force at the net. Ashley Brueggeman will figure to be heavily involved in the offense again after contributing 209 kills in her rookie campaign last season.
DEFENSE BEGINS EARLY
Last year, North Dakota rattled off 11 straight wins down the stretch, losing just three sets along the way to earn a regular season conference crown followed by a successful league tournament en route to the first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament in program history.
"We talked about last year, if you want to be the last one standing, you've got to be the first one that's willing to get in the gym early," fourth-year UND head coach Mark Pryor (73-32 at UND) said. "We're going to have the same thing this year. We've got to be willing to commit to those things and recognize where our growth is for us to be good."
CHANGING THE MINDSET
"Last year there was some innocence to it, we didn't clinch the regular season outright until the last day," Pryor admitted. "The kids hadn't experienced it before and having them understand this year that if they can just embrance today and have a lot of energy today, it eases up tomorrow. If we do our job specifically well and focus on our things-- if we're the biggest, most physical team and we control the ball enough-- we're going to be in position we want to be at the end of the year. We can't win it tonight, but setting the tone that we're going to be in every game."
It'll be a tough non-conference once again for UND, who will play 10 matches in the first two weekends before even getting a home match under its belt. A trip to Ole Miss gets things started for four matches at the Rebel Invitational then a Sunday excursion to Georgia Tech (Aug. 27). That next weekend sees North Dakota head the other direction for matches at New Mexico State (2) and UTEP (3). September 6 is the home opener and it is against in-state rival North Dakota State, so no respite before the three-match UND Classic that weekend.
The Big Sky Conference season begins Sep. 21 as the Fighting Hawks will have to play six of their first eight league matches on the road. UND lost just two league road matches last season and went undefeated at home in conference play, taking an 11-match home winning streak into 2017.