The Minnesota Duluth volleyball team held its first practice of the season Monday at Romano Gym, and Bulldogs coach Jim Boos liked yelling "Balts" every chance he got.

“Balts! Get over here,” he said after another member of the media made a request to interview the Bulldogs’ star setter.

“It’s never going to get old,” Emily Balts said.

Emily Balts is the former Emily Torve, having married former UMD standout wide receiver Jason Balts on June 1 at Spirit Mountain. They honeymooned in Vail, Colo.

Jason Balts, UMD’s male scholar-athlete award recipient for 2018-19, graduated with a degree in education studies last December. He is learning the ropes as an intern assistant on the UMD football coaching staff this fall, while his wife will lead the volleyball team as a senior captain.

The Bulldogs couldn’t be more proud of them.

“Tremendous,” UMD senior development officer Gary Holquist said. “They’re off the charts athletically and off the charts academically.”

Emily Balts sports a 3.92 grade-point average in chemical engineering and will graduate in December. After graduating, she plans on going back to work at Charter NEX Films in Superior, where she interned last summer.

“It’s been great,” Balts said of her time at UMD. “It’s going to be sad to leave, that’s for sure. Some of those feelings are coming back, that it’s my last year, but I’m really excited to be back here for one last season in Romano, which is awesome.”

As players started knocking volleyballs around and the sounds of thump, thump, thump returned for another season, the newly renovated Romano Gym looked as ready as ever, sporting new wax. Outside, it was 80 degrees as workers were busy implementing plans that call for the turnaround area in front of Romano to be pushed further out, allowing for more walking space.

Inside, it was air-conditioned comfort, but there were reminders of how Romano used to be this time of year, with the gym’s lobby still being stuffy and hot as parts of the building do not have the same cooling system.

UMD will enjoy it.

“That’s an understatement,” Boos said. “I have the same shirt I started the day in, when we used to have bring three shirts to practice. I haven’t sweated at all.”

The Bulldogs are also happy to have their new home firmly in place to start the season. Last year, while Romano was under construction, UMD practiced at St. Scholastica and the Duluth Indoor Sports Center. It’s no wonder the season felt a little disjointed.

“Last year we were kind of running around all over the place, so it was hard to get into a rhythm,” Balts said. “This year we should be able to find it right away.”

The 5-foot-8 Balts, of Loretto, Minn., is in her fifth season in the program and fourth season spearheading the attack. She is one of five returning seniors from a team that went 28-6 last year and 17-3 in NSIC play.

While standouts Makenzie Morgen and Sarah Kelly graduated, the Bulldogs return plenty of firepower with the likes of senior Hanna Meyer and junior Kate Berg, second and third in kills last season with 336 and 326, respectively.

The Bulldogs averaged 14.89 kills per set, third-best in NCAA Division II, something Meyer said starts with Balts.

“Emily is a very good leader,” Meyer said. “She’s always calm and composed, and someone you can go to and ask, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ Just overall a fun teammate to have, and very supportive. She’s very wise and knows a lot about the game.”

The Bulldogs have a tradition of long-tenured setters in much the fashion as UMD football has had long-tenured quarterbacks. There’s been so many great ones, it’s hard to compare or rank them.

“Huh-ho! That’s a tough question,” Boos said. “Emily is an extremely intelligent, heady setter. She’s at the point in her development that she can just run the show like a quarterback who calls his own plays. There’s always things a player can improve on, but she’s at the precipice of understanding what needs to be done at that position. These two weeks now are simply just getting back in the groove.”

UMD opens the season Sept. 6 against Adelphi University at the Palm Beach Atlantic Tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Balts will eventually start climbing the record books this season if she stays healthy. She is a three-time all-NSIC selection and second-team All-American last fall after averaging 12.69 assists per set. She is sixth all-time at UMD with 4,181 set assists and has a shot at second if she has a good season, with Katie Gangelhoff (2005-08) first with 6,035 and Ashley Hinsch (2012-15) second at 5,641.

"I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented setters, and Emily is one of the smoothest in terms of the way she distributes the ball," Boos said.

Coming out of high school, Balts also looked at the likes of NSIC schools Minnesota State-Mankato and Augustana. She said she chose UMD because “Duluth is a cool city,” had the degree she wanted, was close enough to home (but not too close) and had a strong program. With Balts leading the way, UMD is 79-18 over the past three seasons.

While every college decision is important, Balts’ decision turned out to be both a life — and name — changer.

“It definitely was,” Balts said. “It was a great decision, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

Emily (Torve) Balts sets the ball as a hitter comes in for a hit during practice at Romano Gym on Monday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Emily (Torve) Balts sets the ball as a hitter comes in for a hit during practice at Romano Gym on Monday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com