WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL: Mustangs survive in five

DULUTH – For the 10th consecutive season, the Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball team found itself in the NCAA tournament and for the fourth consecutive season the Mustangs earned a first-round victory.

This season it was fourth-seeded Washburn which fell victim to the fifth-seeded Mustangs, who prevailed in the five-set thriller by set scores of 25-27, 25-18, 25-27, 25-15, 15-11).

SMSU advanced to the NCAA second round to face No. 1-seeded Minnesota-Duluth at 7:30 p.m.

“In going to a fifth set, we joke that its like playing Russian Roulette. We just don’t want to get into those positions,” Southwest Minnesota State head coach Terry Culhane said. “Washburn played hard and it was a battle. Fortunately, in Game 5, we served really well and I think was probably the difference in the match.”

The Mustangs trailed 2-1 after four sets, but came back to force a fifth set for just the second time this season. SMSU had been 2-2 in five-set matches coming in but managed its third five-set victory of the season.

The Mustangs are now 8-10 all-time in the NCAA tournament.

Four SMSU players had big nights as Abbey Thissen led the charge with 18 kills, while McKell Anderson (16), Whitney Burmeister (15), and Claire Sames (14) were not far behind. Senior libero Rachel Westby was automatic in the back row as she tallied a career-high 39 digs in the match, breaking her previous high of 32.

“Rachel was very aggressive in digging up the ball,” Culhane said. “I was hoping this was not going to be her last match. Ball control is so important and it gets overlooked a lot, Rachel was very important in what we did (Thursday).”

Westby said she was trying to extend the Mustangs’ season.

“Being a senior, I did everything I could to extend my season one more day,” Westby said. “My ball control effects what (setter)?Emilee (Gutzmer) does, which then effects our hitters.”

Gutzmer said she has quite a few options when setting the ball to SMSU hitters.

“This year, we have the ability to have more hitters after losing three hitters last season,” Gutzmer said. “But I think that makes us harder to defend. All of our hitters played really well (Thursday night).”

In the first set, Washburn exploded with a 5-0 lead, forcing the hand of Culhane to burn an early timeout to slow the momentum. It didn’t take very long until Culhane had to use his second and final timeout of the set as the Ichabods owned a 12-5 advantage.

Out of the timeout, Burmeister served SMSU to four straight points to pull within three and the Mustangs eventually tied the set at 17-17 with a 12-5 run. SMSU took its first lead of the set at 20-19 when Burmeister reeled off three straight attacks for kills. The Mustangs fended off two Washburn set points, but the third one gave the Ichabods the set 27-25 on back-to-back kills.

In the second set, SMSU had a fast start as the Mustangs built a 9-4 lead that forced a Washburn timeout. That lead grew to eight points at 20-12 when Anderson slammed home back-to-back kills. The kills forced Washburn to take its second and final timeout of the set, but the Mustangs coasted to a 25-18 set victory.

The third set was close all along as SMSU held the largest lead of the set by both teams, which was three points, when the Mustangs owned a 10-7 lead. SMSU would strike first as Anderson and company held set point at 24-23, but Anderson’s serve went into the net and Washburn took advantage. With the score even at 25, the Ichabods used back-to-back block assists to suck the air out of the Mustangs’ sails and take a 2-1 match lead.

With the fourth set at 14-13 in favor of the Ichabods, SMSU used an incredible 12-1 run to force a fifth set. Sames served the Mustangs to nine straight points that included two Anderson kills and two block assists by Sarah Parker and Emilee Gutzmer.

SMSU used a fast start in set five to steal away all of the momentum as the Mustangs owned a 12-6 advantage coming out of a timeout. But Washburn wasn’t done as the Ichabods pushed across four straight points to put the Mustangs on their heels and call both timeouts within the run.

A setting error by Leanna Willer gave SMSU match point at 14-11 and Westby wasted little time to put the match away as her ensuing serve landed in the stands as Korie Thompson couldn’t receive the service attempt.