After a relatively slow start, the sixth-ranked Minnesota Duluth volleyball team cranked up its offense en route to a 25-23, 23-25, 25-11, 25-19 victory over ninth-ranked Central Missouri in their NCAA Division II Central Regional opener on Thursday before 333 at the Health and Sports Center in Kearney, Neb.

Senior middle blocker Abby Thor had 18 kills and three blocks to lead the second-seeded Bulldogs (25-6). They play their archrival, third-seeded Concordia-St. Paul (26-7), at 5 p.m. Friday in the regional semifinals. Another NSIC team, fourth-seeded Northern State (25-5), plays top-seeded tournament host Nebraska-Kearney (34-0) at 7:30 p.m. in the other semifinal.

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“I thought we really battled, especially early on,” UMD coach Jim Boos said in the postseason press conference. “Central Missouri was really giving us some trouble from a blocking standpoint, but I felt like we remained confident, we remained aggressive and once we settled in, we really started to get the offense going. I’m super happy with the way we played.”

Meredith Sutton, a sophomore outside hitter from Grand Marais, added 16 kills, while Kate Berg had 13 kills and Summer Ballard added 12. The Bulldogs attack percentage went from .146 in the first set to .178, .500 and .382 as the match progressed.

Senior Emily Balts paced the offense with 58 set assists while adding 13 digs and three kills, while senior Keena Seiffert led the defense with 22 digs.

“I think the biggest thing was getting the ball off the net,” Balts said. “In the beginning we were just playing balls too tight close to the blocker. There were a lot of seams, holes and opportunities to score, so we made adjustments throughout the match that really helped.”

With seven of the top nine ranked teams in the nation, the Central Region is considered the best in the nation, almost the equivalent of the Elite Eight. UMD is ranked sixth, while Central Missouri is ranked ninth but won’t even advance to the round of 32.

“When a team of that caliber is eliminated in the first round, it’s a shame, but that’s the way it works at the Division II level,” Boos said.

Hannah Engelken was the lone player in double digits offensively with 10 kills to lead the Jennies (23-10), who finished with a .176 attack percentage compared to .280 for UMD.

“They’ve got plenty of players who can score, but to me the game comes down to serving and passing, and if we can’t serve the ball well enough … their setter is a fantastic player,” said Central Missouri coach Flip Piontek. “She’s a returning All-American, and she’s likely going to be an All-American again this year and when she gets the ball in good shape, then it becomes very difficult for your blockers to get any clue, to have any hint of what she’s going to do with it, and that’s the way she wants it.

“When you put the ball in your senior setter’s hands, when she is as fantastic as she is, then it becomes very difficult. To me the difference in the match is that they got 69 kills and we got 44. That’s a huge difference to make up.”