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College volleyball: Court is back in session at UMD

Berg-led Bulldogs young but talented.

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Outside hitter Kate Berg bumps the ball during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at Romano Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Longtime Minnesota Duluth volleyball coach Jim Boos did a little reflecting Tuesday outside of Romano Gymnasium, talking about days gone by as he addressed reporters as part of the Bulldogs’ media day.

“Yes, the good old …,” Boos said, pausing before saying “days.”

No, the good ol’ days at Romano weren’t very good at all this time of year, when inside the building it was like a brick oven and coaches and players were drenched in sweat, long before the facility had a new air conditioning system put in.

Boos and Co. decided to take it outside for far different reasons Tuesday as masks are required inside due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s comfortable in there, way more comfortable than where I’m standing right now,” Boos said, wearing a long-sleeve shirt on a 90-degree day, sweat drops forming on his brow. “We had some rough preseasons in Romano over the years. That would have been a much different challenge if we had been wearing masks then. It’s awesome now comparatively.”

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And even better just to be on the court again after the 2020 season was wiped out due to the pandemic.

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Outside hitter Kate Berg bumps the ball during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at Romano Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Scan the Bulldogs’ roster and you’ll only see one senior — one — and that’s 5-foot-9 outside hitter Kate Berg.

“Last year was really tough, especially practicing in the fall,” Berg said. “There was no end in sight.”

Berg graduated cum laude this past spring with a degree in marketing and graphic design and minor in management. She is now pursuing her master’s degree in business.

Berg was one of three in her class to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility and come back this season. She had already applied for her master’s program before COVID, and that made the decision to return this fall a slam dunk, or, in this case, a thunderous spike.

“It honestly worked out really well,” Berg said. “I get my master’s and I get to play volleyball on top of it.”

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Berg returns after leading the 2019 Bulldogs to a 25-7 record and 16-4 mark in NSIC play. She had a team-leading 472 kills, or 4.18 per set. While being known as a frequent flyer, Berg is also very good defensively as she ranked second with 342 digs, or 3.03 per set. She doesn’t leave the court often.

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Head coach Jim Boos talks to his team during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at Romano Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

While UMD was very senior heavy in 2019 it will be the opposite this fall as youth will be served among the 14 players on the roster. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 2 in the NSIC preseason poll behind rival Concordia-St. Paul.

“I definitely have the most experience on this team, so I need to be a leader,” said Berg, who is serving as captain along with redshirt sophomore setter Madison Gordon and junior defensive specialist Sydney Lanoue. “We have eight girls who have never seen a college match. There’s going to be a lot of leadership responsibilities I’ll have to take on.”

Bring it on.

Berg, of Medina, Minnesota, who played for nearby Wayzata High School, has the type of energy, the type of positive personality, that others gravitate towards.

“Obviously, she has all the tools that you need in volleyball to be successful, but I think the fact she decided to come back, and that she wanted to dedicate herself to this says a lot about her desires and passions for what we’re trying to get done,” Boos said. “As important as her leadership will be on the court, it’s going to be every bit as important, if not more important, off the court.”

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Players huddle together during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at Romano Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

If there was a silver lining in all this COVID craziness for Berg it’s that she had shoulder surgery in December and was out all spring recovering. She called it an overuse injury, the product of countless spikes delivered by her right hand over the years.

“It got worse over the fall, and I had the opportunity to have surgery done and not miss the season, so I did it,” she said. “It got to the point where it was almost unbearable.”

Now she’s back, and presumably, better than ever.

Berg called the timing of everything a blessing.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” she said. “I don’t think there’s many college athletes who have been able to have surgery in the middle of their eligibility without missing a season, so it worked out really well.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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