Eyeing the next step

It’s commonplace for college coaches to boast about their conference’s stature among the national landscape. Most tend to embellish a bit.

But when Minot State volleyball coach Travis Ward declares that the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is as good as it gets, he’s not lying.

“Every conference probably says it’s the top league in the country or one of the top leagues or they’re really proud of their league,” Ward said. “Statistically, it’s impressive what we do. Nobody can argue that we aren’t the best league in the country.”

The Beavers, entering their third season in the NSIC, will once again face ranked opposition on a regular basis. Five NSIC teams were ranked in the AVCA Division II preseason poll, including No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul – the seven-time defending national champion – No. 3 Minnesota Duluth and No. 7 Southwest Minnesota State. Wayne State (No. 21), Northern State (No. 22) and Augustana (receiving votes, 30th overall in poll points) will also contend for the league title.

In November, the top eight of 16 teams receive berths to the NSIC tournament. With six teams in the top 30, locking down a playoff spot is Minot State’s top priority.

“I think we have the skill to do it this year, we have the passion to do it this year, and the drive,” senior setter Emily Byrne said.

Last year, the Beavers went 7-13 in league play and finished 13th in the standings, three wins out of eighth place. Four teams posted 8-12 records and tied for ninth.

MSU put itself in contention for the final tournament bid, but ended the year on a five-match skid that included losses to two ranked teams and another receiving votes.

“By missing it so close last year, it’s kind of left a bad taste in our mouth,” Byrne said. “We don’t want that to happen again. Our goal to make it to playoffs is at the top of our list.”

The Beavers will rely on their experience this year, something they have been lacking lately, especially since joining Division II in 2011. MSU returns its top four leaders in kills with senior Jen Dixon (3.97 per set), junior Mallory Sall (3.60), junior Tarah Dabovich (2.44) and sophomore Lauren Dunkle (2.14); top two servers in Dixon (38 aces) and Byrne (30); top three back-row defenders in Dixon (3.22 digs per set), Byrne (2.30) and junior Ashley Heavenor (2.36); top blocker in Dabovich (71 total blocks); and Byrne, who is third all-time in the program in assists with 3,085.

“We definitely have some older girls with some experience,” Dixon said. “… We know what the teams are like, we know what the competition is like in this conference.”

Ward also has a new luxury this year: depth. He added four freshmen and five transfers in the offseason to pad his roster a bit.

Freshman outside hitter Brileigh Boyce – who Dixon says can “jump out the roof” – will likely start from the right side position, while junior Jess Thompson, a transfer from Kansas City (Kan.) Community College will start as a middle blocker. A handful of other newcomers could also see regular playing time this year.

“It’s fun to have depth where we’re not depending on a freshman this year,” said Ward, in his sixth year at the helm. “We’ve had that every year since I’ve been here.

“Not that we don’t have the potential to start some freshmen this year, but it’s exciting to know there’s depth with our older kids.”

The Beavers kick off their season with the Montana State-Billings Invitational on Friday and Saturday. They’ll head to the Northern State Invite next weekend before beginning conference play with rival U-Mary on Sept. 16. Their first home weekend is highlighted by a showdown with the powerhouse Golden Bears.

While Ward doesn’t expect his team to get through a double round-robin NSIC schedule unscathed, he does believe the Beavers are finally ready to compete with ranked opponents on a nightly basis.

“We’re playing for November,” Ward said. “We’re going to have some bumps in the road and some losses, sure, but I think we’ve got a chance to win enough to get into that conference tournament and then be scary when we get there.”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.