WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL: SMSU set for NCAA tournament

DULUTH – The Southwest Minnesota State volleyball team is back where its want to be.

For the 10th consecutive year, fifth-seeded SMSU (23-7 overall) faces fourth-seeded Washburn (31-5) in an NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament quarterfinal-round match at 5 p.m. today on the campus of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“I think our team is excited to play in the NCAA tournament and we understand the importance of this region and how well we have to play to advance in this region,” Mustangs head coach Terry Culhane said.

SMSU will have to earn every point in arguably the toughest Division II volleyball region in the nation. With opponents like Washburn, Minnesota-Duluth (31-2), Central Missouri (32-1), Concordia-St. Paul (29-3), Nebraska-Kearney (28-6), Arkansas Tech (25-11) and Northern State (22-7), there will be no easy victories for any team.

“This region is ridiculously good,” Culhane said. “When you think about a team like Wayne State, which is ranked 18th in the country, they don’t even qualify for this region tournament. That should tell us a lot right there.”

Today’s other quarterfinal matches include sixth-seeded Northern State meeting third-seeded Concordia-St. Paul at 12 p.m., seventh-seeded Nebraska-Kearney playing second-seeded Central Missouri at 2:30 p.m. and eighth-seeded Arkansas Tech entertaining top-seeded Minnesota-Duluth at 7:30 p.m.

Washburn is led by right-side hitter Marissa Cox, who has 474 kills, a .340 attack percentage and 13 solo blocks in 2013. Setter Abby Wittman (1,397 set assists, 44 aces, 438 digs) has directed the Ichabods offense to a season average attack percentage of .227, which is 37th best in the nation. Wittman and middle blocker Sarah Vicroy (267 kills, 12 solo blocks) are the only two Ichabods to start all 36 matches this season.

Other important Ichabods include outside hitter Leanna Willer (375 kills, 373 digs), outside hitter Corrinne Stringer (267 kills) and libero/outside hitter Kesley Lewis (582 digs, 47 aces).

“We’re talking about the best region in the country,” Culhane said. “All of these teams are going to swing and they don’t just have one good hitter. They will have multiple good hitters. We need to pay attention to (Cox), but, we will also need to slow down their other players.”

Southwest Minnesota State’s attack features three players with more than 300 kills – right-side hitter Abbey Thissen (419 kills), middle blocker Claire Sames (318 kills) and outside hitter Whitney Burmeister (310 kills). Setter Emilee Gutzmer has 1,263 set assists, while libero Rachel Westby is Mustangs’ dig leader with 519.

SMSU’s pinpoint serving includes more than 20 aces from four different players – Burmeister (37), Westby (28), Gutzmer (26) and outside hitter/right-side hitter Ellen Degler (22).

Sames, who has 20 solo blocks, leads the Mustangs, who have struggled against tough blocking opponents. SMSU’s foes have made 291 blocks while the Mustangs have created 199.

“We treat this tournament like its a national tournament,” Culhane said. “We know that if we can get through a region like this, we can win at a high level in the Elite Eight or beyond. But getting out of this region is the hardest thing to do.”

Southwest Minnesota State is 7-10 overall in 11 NCAA tournament appearances, but has won its last three first-round clashes. The Mustangs defeated Colorado School of Mines (2010), Metro State (2011) and Truman (2012) in their last three NCAA first-round matches. SMSU is 6-4 overall during the first round.

The battle features two American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 10 teams with the Mustangs ranked seventh in the nation and the Ichabods rated eighth. Although SMSU is 5-4 this season against teams ranked in the Top 25, Southwest Minnesota State is 1-3 versus opponents rated among the Top 10.

The Mustangs’ 3-0 home sweep of then-No. 7 ranked Wayne State on Sept. 21 is SMSU’s only win against a Top 10 team this year. Southwest Minnesota State was swept in three games versus No. 1-ranked Tampa on Sept. 14, No. 3-rated Concordia-St. Paul on Oct. 19 and No. 2-ranked Minnesota-Duluth on Nov. 2.

The Central Region tournament continues with semifinal-round matches at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Friday. The championship match is set for 7 p.m. Saturday.