GRAND FORKS, N.D.-- Great teams usually have to fend off some adversity to make that transition from a good team. Exhibit A may have been on display Thursday at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center as the Fighting Hawks, without their reigning Big Sky Conference Player of the Year setter Sydney Griffin due to injury, swept a battle-tested Northern Arizona team to remain atop the league's North Division.
North Dakota, which got off to a 24-4 start to the season, had dropped three of its last four matches coming into Thursday's key contest and frankly was in need of some good mojo heading into the conference tournament. The Fighting Hawks may have found it when Sidney Mattson, in just her second career start and first of the season, handed out a career-best 35 assists as she distributed to wide array of attackers with Tamara Merseli killing a dozen and middle hitters Faith Dooley (10 kills) and Jordan Vail (9) combining for 19 finishes. Sophomore Ashley Brueggeman added seven kills--without an error-- and six total blocks to go along with a career-best seven digs.
"Tonight's match was more meaningful to me than any conference title or NCAA tournament bid," UND head coach Mark Pryor said. "What I saw was the thing I am most proud of as the coach at North Dakota. We had a team fight with all their heart for a teammate. Sidney has been patient, she has never waivered in her commitment here, and she got a chance to play tonight. She knew she was the only setter, and she was great. She knew there was pressure, but she performed at a very high level.
With the win, UND tied the school record for wins in a season (26, tied last year as well) and puts the Fighting Hawks at 11-4 in league play, in the mix to still grab that No. 2 seed in the upcoming league tournament.
With Griffin not in uniform due to a lower body injury, Mattson got the start in what was a rematch of last season's Big Sky Conference Tournament championship. It went much the same way as the home team swept the Lumberjacks, not allowing NAU to score more than 20 in any set.
Dooley put up five kills and had four blocks in the first set alone to help the Fighting Hawks turn a slim 15-13 deficit into a 23-17 lead before Merseli finished the set with one of her 12 kills.
In the second set, UND led wire-to-wire, with Brueggeman killing four balls and grabbing two of her blocks in that frame to help hold NAU to .000 hitting in that stanza.
The third set, a mid-set 7-2 spurt pushed the Hawks in front for good, erasing a two-point NAU lead and giving North Dakota all the momentum and a 12-9 advantage. UND would close it out, 25-19, to earn the sweep and improve to 10-1 at home this season with just four set losses total in those 11 matches.
"This team has driven me nuts this year at times, and they know it," Pryor admitted. "But, tonight I could not be more proud of how they showed how much they cared for Sidney by putting it all out there for her. That shows a team-first culture, and that is true success, regardless of win or loss."
UND hosts Northern Colorado in the regular season finale Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. at the Betty.