I’m posting this USD volleyball preview story here, in case you don’t see it inside our Yankton Media Fall Sports Preview (due for an Aug. 30 release). The Coyotes open their season this weekend at a University of Missouri Tournament.
— — — —
BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION — One match.
That’s all that separated the USD volleyball team from advancing to last year’s Summit League tournament. The Coyotes, along with two other teams, finished 8-8 in league play, one match behind both Oakland and Kansas City — both of whom left the conference.
So yes, that has fueled the fire for USD this season.
“We did all we could at the end to put ourselves in a position to make the tournament,” sixth-year head coach Matt Houk said. “We just left it in someone else’s hands.
“We’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.”
Thus became the team credo for 2013: Unfinished Business.
“There’s definitely a different mindset,” senior setter Tori Kroll said. “We saw what happened last year, that even if you finish really strong, it’s not always enough. We’re ready to make that difference.”
A point of frustration last year for the Coyotes was a stretch of nine losses in 11 matches, followed by a string of five straight wins to close the season. Consistency is naturally the key this year, Houk said.
“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve had great runs like that, but we always seem to drop a few in a row,” Houk said. “Hopefully we’ve done the work to not have that.”
Part of that involved all 11 returners staying in Vermillion over the summer.
The Coyotes bring back four of their top five hitters from a year ago, their top setter (Kroll) and seven of their top eight defenders by number of digs.
Leading the way on offense are hitters Kendall Kritenbrink (Jr., 404 kills, All-Summit League), Amber Aschoff (Sr., 200 kills), Natalie Walseth (Sr., 160 kills) and Sydney Dimke (So. 155 kills). Kroll added 1,036 set assists to go along with 102 kills.
USD also returns Riley Haug (Jr.), Melissa Firtko (Jr.), Kaitlyn Hastings (So.), Kelsey Biltoft (So.), Lindsey Brown (RFr.) and Hurley native Haley Jorgensen (RFr.).
“We’ve never had that many returners before,” Houk said. “In the past we’ve always had to start two or three freshmen right away, and that requires an adjustment period.
“We haven’t had to break as many things down.”
Of the four freshmen, Houk pointed to Audrey Reeg (Dubuque, Iowa) as a possibility to play right away in a couple different roles.
To challenge the team, the coaching staff put together a tougher schedule. The Coyotes will face seven teams that had a sub-100 RPI last season — Iowa State (15), Hawaii (21), Creighton (24), Wichita State (36), Missouri (59), Idaho State (87) and Texas Tech (96).
USD was able to get into the Wichita State Tournament, Sept. 19-21, after Oakland left the Summit League, Houk said — that weekend was supposed to be the conference opener.
“It’s not just cool to play with those teams anymore, we know we can take games from them,” Houk said. “In the past, it was ‘This is neat.’ We felt confident enough in ourselves to put those teams on the schedule.”
The Coyotes got experience against that level during the spring season, when they took a game from Nebraska.
“We want to see where we are against some of those teams,” Kroll said. “They’re tougher than the teams in our conference, so that should help us down the road.”
Picked fourth in the Summit League preseason poll, the Coyotes seemingly have a better chance to reach the conference tournament. Six teams advance, rather than four like last year.
“All of us have expectations to get first,” Kroll said. “But if we don’t, we’ll aim for as high as we can go. We know fifth place isn’t an option this year.”
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck