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College volleyball: UMD looks to bounce back

Bulldogs, picked tied for fifth in the NSIC preseason poll released Tuesday, are using subpar 2021 season as motivation for this fall.

Bulldog head volleyball coach Jim Boos talks with players on their first day of practice
Bulldog head volleyball coach Jim Boos talks with players on their first day of practice at Romano Gym on the UMD campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Most volleyball programs would consider an 18-11 overall record and 10-10 mark in the ultra-competitive NSIC a good year, but that’s not the case at Minnesota Duluth.

“Not where we wanted to be,” coach Jim Boos said.

Boos has set a very lofty standard going into his 20th season with the Bulldogs, including 17 trips to the NCAA Division II national tournament. Boos’ previous low for wins in a season was 23.

But last year was different.

Boos is demanding as a coach but quickly realized he had to temper his expectations.

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“A year ago we knew things were going to be more challenging than they traditionally have been,” Boos said. “We dealt with injuries and issues throughout the year, but we tried to focus on getting better. We were pretty happy where we ended up given all the circumstances we had behind the scenes.”

The Bulldogs hosted Media Day Monday as part of their opening day of practice. They said they’re using last year as motivation for this season.

“Last year was definitely a learning experience for us,” said senior defensive specialist Sydney Lanoue. “It showed us where we need to get to. We’ll keep that little bitter taste in our mouths from last season and use that to propel us forward. We’re going to work really hard and kind of find our team identity. That’s something we struggled with last year.”

Senior outside hitter Kate Berg — a first-team All-American in 2019 — was never 100% healthy last season and former Cook County standout Meredith Sutton didn’t come back out after a strong sophomore season in 2019 was followed by the COVID-canceled fall of 2020.

“We went from needing to replace four people to suddenly needing to replace five and a half,” Boos said. “That’s pretty significant on a roster that only plays six people on the court at a time.”

And it didn’t stop there as there were other injuries and issues as the season progressed.

Boos said every year brings a certain amount of strife but said in his tenure at UMD, he’s never dealt with anything close to what happened last fall.

“At any given time we had eight or nine kids at a practice,” Boos said. “That’s not a great way to run a volleyball program.”

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Or to find any kind of consistency on the court.

“This morning we had six players in the middle right-side position,” Boos said. “Last year we had multiple practices where we only had one, so we were playing kids out of a position. There were kids who didn’t practice all week who had to play on a weekend. Those aren’t things that lend themselves to success, in our league especially.”

Lanoue said the Bulldogs’ struggles certainly weren’t for a lack of effort.

“It was definitely frustrating at times, but there was also an understanding that we had an underclassmen-heavy team and a lot of injuries and adversity we had to overcome,” Lanoue said. “Nobody is going out there and trying to be bad. Everybody was trying their best, but unfortunately we just came up short in a lot of games.”

The tough competition in the NSIC certainly didn’t do the Bulldogs any favors, either. Considered the best Division II volleyball conference in the nation, the NSIC is no place to rebuild.

Even now the Bulldogs will be incredibly young. Of the 15 players on the roster, 12 of them have played one college season or fewer, but there’s a lot to like.

Outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka and 6-foot-3 middle blocker Grace Daak are back after leading the Bulldogs with 391 and 268 kills, respectively, en route to earning NSIC second-team honors.

It was an impressive first season for Selbitschka, a North Branch (Minnesota) product who had a team-leading 35 service aces and was second with 322 digs.

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“Cianna has a lot of potential as we saw last year and she’s just going to keep going up,” Lanoue said. “I’m looking forward to her shining even brighter this year.”

Lanoue, of Tracy, Minnesota, returns after also earning NSIC second-team honors. She led the Bulldogs with 495 digs while setter Madison Gordon of New Berlin, Wisconsin, is back after notching 1,019 set assists, or 9.6 per set.

This summer, eight or nine UMD players stuck around to lift weights and play sand volleyball. The additional time was good for team building and working out the kinks. The year before, only about four players stuck around as the team was so young and staying in Duluth isn’t as much a requisite for freshmen as it is with the older players.

UMD’s confidence is also buoyed by a strong spring in which the Bulldogs put renewed emphasis on finetuning their attack.

“We did a pretty good job on defense last year by keeping the ball off the floor, but on our side we need to be more terminal this year, so that’s what we focused on,” Selbitschka said. “We’re going to go out there and swing hard.

“We all have the mindset that we didn’t make it where we wanted to last year, and that’s going to push us even harder. This spring we played the way that we know that we can. I have a feeling this season is going to be a really good one.”

Lanoue agreed.

UMD opens the season Aug. 26 against Drury at a tournament in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

With the vast majority of this year’s squad expected back in 2023, the future of UMD volleyball is bright, but for Lanoue, a fifth-year senior, this is it, her last go-round.

“The goal is to get better every season, and with this being my last one, you want to make it the best one yet,” Lanoue said.

Bulldogs picked fifth in NSIC

Minnesota Duluth was picked to finish tied for fifth in the NSIC Volleyball Preseason Coaches’ Poll released Tuesday.

Perennial power Concordia-St. Paul was picked first with 217 points and nine first-place votes while conference upstart St. Cloud State was picked second with 213 points and the seven remaining first-place votes.

Wayne State (189 points) was third, Augustana (179) fourth and UMD and Northern State tied for fifth with 149 points apiece.

Bulldog outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka warms up before practice
Bulldog outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka warms up before practice at Romano Gym on the UMD campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog captain Sydney Lanoue warms up during practice
Bulldog captain Sydney Lanoue warms up during practice at Romano Gym on the UMD campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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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