1991 team set standard for success for Mustang volleyball

On Saturday, the Southwest Minnesota State University Athletics Hall of Honor will welcome several individuals and one very important team in Mustang athletic history.

The 1991 SMSU volleyball team will be the 11th team inducted into the Hall of Honor. The squad gave the program its first appearance in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Volleyball Championship, helping to lay the groundwork for future success.

“It’s just a great honor for the team. It’s an incredible group of young women and they accomplished so much,” said Deb Denbeck, head coach of the 1991 squad. “When you look at the whole scheme of things in volleyball at Southwest, I really have to say that this is the team that established the foundation for, even today, what the standards really are.”

The 30-16 record ranks fourth all time, but Denbeck, who coached the Mustangs for 17 seasons, said things started coming together after an earlier-than- expected ending to the 1990 season.

“I think you have to go back to the end of the 1990 team. We really thought that was the team that would probably be the first team to go to the national championships,” Denbeck said. “That team was a great team, but we fell short.”

In 1991, they were able to add several key pieces that made a difference.

“It was a heartbreak that we didn’t go further in 1990,” said Jenai (Hutchinson) Wright. “But when we got Monica (Green) and with our freshmen coming in, it was great. Our outsides were set, we had our middles. It was a team that meshed well together.”

When the team – consisting of Wright, Jeanette Blake, Jill Dauenhauer, Monica Green, Heather Hindt, Corinne Hoffmann, Dawn Lovestrand, Jen Peiffer, Kathy Sheehan, Stacy Van Zee and Tiffany Yaeger – stepped on the court at the NAIA National Challenge, Denbeck saw the potential.

“Back in those days, Southwest hosted the NAIA National Challenge in the fall and brought in the best NAIA teams in the country. We did extremely well. I think we finished third in the tournament,” Denbeck said. “From then on we kept beating ranked teams and before long we were ranked in the top 10.

“You knew it was going to be a really special team. They were fighters, they were competitors, but the best thing is it was a great team because nobody was concerned about how anybody else was doing. They just took care of business and jelled together well as a team.”

In 1991, the team’s biggest rival came from the north. The Mustangs went 3-2 with Moorhead State, winning the first two meetings and the final for the NAIA District 13 championship.

“I think every team has a rival, no matter which sport,” Wright said. “I don’t know why it was Moorhead. It fired us up every time we played.”

Denbeck added, “Moorhead and (our squad) were more or less one and two in the district. Both the outside hitter from Moorhead and Monica were All-Americans. It was always a battle when we went up against Moorhead State. Those are the matches that you really remember. We had such a tight match with them to win the district on our home court.”

After winning the District championship, SMSU played host to Edgewood College from Madison, Wis.

“In order to go to nationals we had to beat a Wisconsin team that came over,” Wright said. “The exciting game for us was beating Moorhead State and then beating the Wisconsin team.”

Both Denbeck and Wright remember the one downside to making the national tournament in 1991 – location.

“Nationals was Hawaii (the two previous years). And of course the year we make it, it’s in Hays, Kansas,” Wright said with a laugh.

Denbeck added with a chuckle, “It’s still a big deal to go to the national tournament, but it’s been in Hawaii the last two years and you draw Kansas.”

The Mustangs went 1-3 in their first national tournament appearance, but Denbeck said they showed up for each match.

“We played Hawaii-Hilo right off the bat and they are the defending national champions. We gave them everything they wanted in a match. I think that match was like a three-hour match,” Denbeck said. “Then we go in and play all the other great teams that are there. We were probably three to four points away from going into the Elite Eight.”

Denbeck and Wright are looking forward to celebrating the success of the 1991 team on Saturday, and to see people they haven’t seen for a while.

“It’s nice to have social media now so I can hear and see what people are doing. (I don’t see them) so much, which makes this weekend extra special,” Wright said. “I haven’t seen a lot of these gals (for a while). It will make this Saturday extra special to see everybody.”