By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
South Dakota State is five years removed from a Summit League Championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament and seem just as far from getting there again. In the four seasons since the Jackrabbits went 25-11, SDSU is just 49-68.
Last year the team was 13-20 and just 5-13 in conference play. If the Jackrabbits finish with a similar mark in 2012, it won’t be for lack of a veteran presence.
This season SDSU will have six seniors on the squad and half the team is made up of upperclassmen. Back are four players who were some of the best in the conference in terms of hitting, blocking, digging and setting up assists.
Tops is senior Kelli Fiegen who was fourth in the conference in points, fifth in blocks, fifth in kills and second in hitting percentage. Fiegen will get support from Shay Birath, sixth in digs, Kaitlin Klingemann, fifth in service aces and Lexi Fowler, fourth in assists.
But despite the accomplishments, the Jackrabbits simply haven’t created the opportunities to make themselves successful. In 2011, SDSU was second to last in the league in assists, second to last in kills per set and dead last in opponents’ hitting percentage.
Thus the Jackrabbits might have a lot back, but that lot has yet to prove its worth.
Western Illinois finished 12-18 in 2011 and 3-15 in the conference. It was the seventh year in a row that the Leathernecks ended with a losing season.
Only once in the 10 year tenure of coach Kym McKay did WIU end the season above .500. A dismal decade led to a non-renewal of McKay’s contract and the hiring of new coach April Hall.
WIU hasn’t been competitive since 2007 and has few players that made much of an impact in 2011. Senior Bridget Murphy was first in the conference at 5.98 digs per set and Molly Murphy was first with 0.39 aces per set.
But the Leathernecks had no player in the top 10 of any other statistical category. New Head Coach Hall might be the answer.
Hall has been part of both Division I and II, coaching at places like Ohio Wesleyan, Northern Kentucky and Ohio State. At Northern Kentucky Hall did more than just coach, she also worked with the scheduling, budget management, recruiting, fundraising, academic progress and game planning. With such an extensive resume, Hall might be just what WIU needs to get them out of the conference cellar. Just don’t expect it to happen right away.
In 2011, the Oakland University volleyball team went further into the postseason than any other team in school history since becoming Division I in 1999. The Golden Grizzlies were one of only four Summit League teams with a winning conference record.
Oakland made the semifinals of the conference tournament before losing to eventual champion North Dakota State.
Much of that first time success can be credited to Oakland’s work on the back line. Defensive specialist Alli Kirk led the way with an average of 5.43 digs per set, a number that ranked 22nd in the country.
Overall the Golden Grizzlies were third in the nation at 18.64 digs per set. Kirk finished 2011 with 603 digs, only the second time a player from Oakland finished with over 600.
Kirk is back for 2012 along with Meghan Bray who broke her own school record by recording 389 kills last season. The return of Bray and fellow senior Brittany Holbrook means the Golden Grizzlies get back two of their top four attackers.
Despite the talent still on the roster, Oakland is probably part of the second tier of teams in the Summit League. The Golden Grizzlies should make the conference tournament again but North Dakota State and IPFW appear to be the class of the league.
In 2011, IUPUI finished 15-16, but considering the Jaguars started 0-5, it could have been worse. Things didn’t improve quickly. But after being 5-10 on Sept. 23, IUPUI rebounded to win 10 of their next 16.
Back are the Jaguars top two offensive attackers, Kelsey Hoefer and Moriah Fair. Hoefer had 316 kills and led the team in hitting at .238, while Fair was tops in kills with 347 and hit .139.
Overall IUPUI was in the middle of the pack offensively in 2011. The return of Hoefer and Fair should at least maintain that spot if not improve it.
The hole to fill is on defense. The Jaguars were third in the Summit League with 18.34 digs per set. But gone are libero Shari Bernhardt and her 686 digs.
The next closest on the list was Fair who dug 304 attacks last year. Fair’s responsibilities as an outside hitter mean another member of the team will have to emerge on defense.
With no true libero and only one upperclassman among IUPUI’s setters and defensive specialists, the ceiling is only so high in Indianapolis.
UMKC is coming into 2012 after losing 7 seniors from last season. Normally that’s bad news. But after going 12-17 overall, 6-12 in the Summit League and ranking at or near the bottom of most offensive categories in 2011, a fresh start might be just what the Kangaroos need.
UMKC was third in the conference in opponent’s hitting percentage at .168 and second in blocks last season, but they had to be. The Roos were last in hitting percentage, last in assists, last in kills and last in service aces.
But UMKC brought in six recruits, one transfer and a player who moved from the basketball program to the volleyball program. PrepVolleyball.com gave the Kangaroos a ‘High Honorable Mention’ rating for their 2012 class.
The ranking would put UMKC in a group of 30 schools that would rank anywhere from 48th to 78th in Division I. The Kangaroos are the only Summit League team listed in the top 78 of recruiting classes.
Like UNO, South Dakota was in a transition to Division I last season. But 2011 was the Coyotes fourth and final year of becoming a full-fledged member of the Summit League.
South Dakota was picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams but surprised some when they went 7-11 and ended the year in sixth. The Coyotes accomplished a road win over Oral Roberts and swept in-state rival South Dakota State.
In 2012 South Dakota returns 12 players, seven of whom saw significant time on court. Four of the top five hitters are back, a two-year starter at setter and two defensive specialists.
Kendall Kritenbrink ranked tops in the conference at 4.23 digs per set as a freshman and 26th in the country. Though Kritenbrink missed 6 games because of illness, she still led the team in kills, piled up 221 digs and added 40 blocks.
Catching up to D-I talent will probably limit the Coyotes to middle of the pack status for a few more seasons. But Kritenbrink emerged as one of the top freshman in the nation last year and bears some serious attention.
Interesting note about Kritenbrink, she’s a Gretna, Neb. native and Omaha Gross graduate. With the Mavs‘ move to D-I, Kritenbrink is the type of in-state player UNO should start locking up.
North Dakota State won the league in 2011, made the NCAA tournament and is poised for a similar performance in 2012. The Bison lose five players from their Summit League Championship team but have four seniors this season and seven returning letter winners.
More than half of NDSU’s 16 conference wins a year ago came in straight sets. The return of senior outside hitter Brynn Joki and senior middle hitter Megan Lambertson means the Bison return two of their top three offensive attackers.
Senior defensive specialist/libero Andrea Henning brings back her team leading 547 digs. Of the seven major statistical categories, the Bison return a player who ranked in the top 10 in each category besides one.
That one though is a big loss. Jennifer Lopez was first in assists in the league with 1,342 and second in average assists per match with 10.82.
NDSU and IPFW were no.’s 1 and 2 in assists last season but IPFW brings back their setter while the Bison don’t have a player who registered more than 100 assists in 2011. IPFW’s consistency at the setter position might be the x-factor that decides the conference crown.
IPFW looks to be the team who can challenge North Dakota State for Summit League supremacy in 2012. The Mastodons return a team with four starters and a libero that went 21-9 and 14-4 en route to a second place finish in the conference.
With what’s coming back, the Mastodons are set on the outside, up the middle and in the back row. Sophomore outside hitter Emily Spencer is coming into her second year with IPFW after piling up 455 kills in 2011 and recording a .170 hitting percentage.
Spencer finished last season averaging 3.79 kills per game, good enough for third overall in the Summit League. Spencer’s freshman performance was bested only by Kendall Kritenbrink of South Dakota.
Kritenbrink recorded 465 kills last season, a 4.23 kills per match average. Spencer’s teammates bring a stable of talent to the court as well.
IPFW is returning a libero who had 653 digs last season, a setter who led the league in assists and a middle hitter with 322 kills and a .245 hitting percentage in 2011.
So where does UNO fit into all of this? If you consider the six matchups the Mavs had with Summit League teams in 2011, it doesn’t look good.
In those six matches, UNO won just one time and captured only five out of 17 sets. The hitting percentage was a miserable .109, and three times the Mavs were held to a hitting percentage under .100.
If you take UNO’s season statistics, it’s even more distressing. The Mavs would rank last or near the bottom in almost every category.
But last year needs to be taken into perspective. In 28 matches, UNO had 22 on the road, 10 in a row at one point.
When the 2012 season begins in a few weeks, the Mavs will be without two of their most consistent performers of the last three years. Emily Myers’, who ranks second all-time in assists, and Angie Reicks who ranks first in digs were lost to graduation.
Head Coach Rose Shires has shown the ability to get the most out of her teams every year since she’s been coaching at the Sapp Fieldhouse. She still has Natalie Ebke and two other seniors in Amy Roberts and Chelsea Snyder.
But there are no other upperclassmen. UNO will eventually get in the mix of the Summit League but it might not be for a few years.