With volleyball picked to finish fourth in the NSIC preseason poll, the No. 23 nationally ranked 10-2 Vikings no longer see itself fighting to make the playoffs, but as a team ready to make a statement come postseason.
Experience has helped the Vikings, with almost every starter returning from the previous season. Six of their current starters are seniors, with the three All-NSIC honorees, Maddy Guetter, Avery Thorson and Erika Bute.
“We returned almost every starter from last season and had players who were more than ready to fill the shoes of the key players we did graduate,” Bute said. “Returning so many experienced players and knowing that we can compete with the best of the best has really given us a lot of confidence going into this season.”
Last season ended in the NSIC tournament semifinals with a 3-2 loss to Winona State, who the team beat this season, Sept. 16.
“I think this team right now is ready to answer the call,” head coach Jennifer Jacobs said. “It’s just been a shift of belief in themselves to be like, ‘Yeah, we should be here.’”
This new mindset brings on new challenges, but the team has been working to combat them.
“I think our team is still trying to navigate what this new identity looks and feels like for us, which is a good challenge to have,” Bute said. “A phrase our team likes to use to manage this is ‘grace and grit.’ We are working to find a healthy balance between having the grit to win big games and also giving ourselves some grace at the same time.”
Bute and Thorson were named team captains for this season. With seven years of starting experience between the two, both have taken on their leadership roles.
“I try to make sure I am leading by example by working hard in practice, lifting and in the classroom,” Thorson said. “Leading this team is very easy though. Everyone is so committed, determined and passionate about succeeding this season that it makes my job as a leader very easy.”
On the court, Thorson averages over 10 assists per set, and Bute averages over 5 digs per set, a number that puts her first in the NSIC. Guetter and senior Kate Reimann return as the leading hitters. Expanding into a new role this year is senior right side hitter Kia Kriener.
Kriener has started every game this season and is currently third on the team with 129 kills, an average of 2.7 per set.
“Coming into college, I didn’t expect to play right away,” Kriener said. Every day at practice for the past three years I got to go up against some of the strongest attackers, setters, and defenders in the conference which has challenged me to learn how to play my position at the level our conference requires.”
When she first arrived on campus, Jacobs and assistant coach Michelle Aggen told Kriener that by the time she was starting, she would be playing both front and back row, something that isn’t seen much from a right-side hitter.
“Her freshman year, when we told her that she had the ability to do it, she thought we were crazy,” Aggen said. “She was like, ‘I’m gonna play back row?’, and we were like, ‘Yeah, you are. You physically will be able to,’ and now she’s doing so, and it’s been fun to watch.”
The Vikings return to action Friday, Sept. 23 in Duluth against the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
“Our team worked really hard in the off-season with lifting, individuals and spring practices.,” Thorson said. “I can confidently say that a lot of those gains and skills have translated over to this season and have made a positive impact. As for now, we are taking care of our bodies and showing up to practice with the mindset of getting a little better every day. As I said, we have the mindset that everything we do now is preparing us for the postseason.”