Minnesota Duluth volleyball coach Jim Boos was concerned a week into preseason practice in August that the Bulldogs were going to have a rough year.
“We were really trash. I mean, we were really bad,” Boos recalled. “We just had no connectedness.”
But the Bulldogs put it together, were ranked as high as third nationally and earned the No. 2 playoff seed in the toughest region in the country.
Unfortunately, that run came to a close Friday as third-seeded Concordia-St. Paul downed UMD 25-22, 25-21, 25-17 in the NCAA Division II Central Regional semifinals before 301 at the Health and Sports Center in Kearney, Neb.
Junior outside hitter Erin Fallert had 14 kills and 10 digs to lead Concordia, which also got 11 kills and nine digs from freshman Jasmine Mulvihill and five blocks from senior Sara Macek. The nine-time national champion Golden Bears (27-7) advance to play top-seeded tournament host Nebraska-Kearney (35-0) for the region championship at 7 p.m. Saturday in Kearney. The winner earns a berth in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight Dec. 12-14 in Denver.
“Concordia played extremely well and didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes,” Boos said in the postmatch press conference. “I think if that team plays like that the rest of the way out, they are going to be really hard to stop from winning another national championship, because they played with a lot of confidence and were the aggressor and had us chasing our tail all night long.”
It certainly won’t be easy for the Golden Bears, who face a Kearney team that destroyed Northern State, the NSIC regular-season champion, 25-12, 25-20, 25-18 in the other regional semifinal Friday night.
But certainly nobody is counting the Golden Bears out. Concordia, which will play for the region title for the fifth-straight year and 16th time in the past 17 years, is now an incredible 71-7 all-time in the NCAA tournament.
Kearney, Concordia and UMD were ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 6, respectively, in the last NCAA Division II national poll, but only one will advance out of this gauntlet.
“Last night I thought our ball control was so good. We were in system so often, and it really allowed us to do a lot of things,” Boos said. “We didn’t move the ball around nearly so well tonight. We were really out of system a lot and didn’t control the ball nearly as well as we did last night, but a lot of that, credit Concordia. They served really aggressively, and not only did they serve aggressively, they didn’t miss a ton, either.”
Senior middle blocker Abby Thor had 12 kills to lead UMD (25-7) while junior outside hitter Kate Berg added 11 kills and seven digs. Emily Balts had 39 set assists and 12 digs, and fellow senior Keena Seiffert led the defense with 13 digs.
After starting its season with a loss, UMD rattled off 12 straight wins. The Bulldogs continued to play well before dropping three of four matches heading into the NCAA playoffs.
“We really dictated a lot of what we wanted to happen in matches, but then for whatever reason, after a three-week stretch at home, we went on the road to play Upper Iowa and Winona State, two teams that were very hungry,” Boos said. “They played extremely well, and we played really poorly, and unfortunately, we’ve kind of been searching for our identity ever since. We had moments, but could never turn the corner.”
UMD holds a 30-28 lead against Concordia in the all-time series, including two wins during the regular season, but the Golden Bears, their archnemesis, have had a decided edge in the postseason.
The Bulldogs were playing in the NCAA tournament for the 22nd time and 15th time in the regional semifinals. Not bad for what at one time looked like a “down” year, at least by UMD standards. UMD graduates five seniors, including the All-America Balts, a four-year starter at setter, who will be difficult to replace.
“I felt like we were right there; but we’ve just been on the wrong end of not playing like we’re capable of,” Boos said. “That’s disappointing, but I’m not disappointed in them. I’m disappointed for them because I know they know they didn’t play as well as they’re capable of.
“This is the worst part of this job; unless you’re at the end celebrating. You get to come back and do it again next year as a coach, but this is the end of a lot of work that they’ve been doing, in many cases, since they were young girls. This group has been awesome.”