Newcomers Ready to Step In as Bison Volleyball Begins Pursuit of Fifth Straight Title
Release: August 22, 2012
North Dakota State is in familiar territory as the preseason favorite to win its fifth straight Summit League women's volleyball championship, but there are plenty of unfamiliar names and faces that could have a big role in how that projection plays out.
NDSU returns three starters and its libero from last year's 26-9 team that won the league outright with a 16-2 mark before advancing to its third NCAA tournament in four seasons. But the 11-player roster also includes five newcomers.
"It's definitely a new make-up," said second-year NDSU head coach. "Our upperclassmen and returners did a nice job of getting to know all the incoming players right away and treating them like equals. We need them to compete, and we need them to be a part of this program right away."
NDSU has to replace three starters, including middle hitter, four-time All-Summit League middle hitter Chrissy Knuth, and reigning Summit League Player of the Year and Setter of the Year Jennifer Lopez.
Setter is the biggest vacancy with backupnot returning to the team after two seasons. The Bison will turn to a pair of newcomers in senior Catherine Yager of St. Michael, Minn., who transferred from Michigan, and freshman from Fond du Lac, Wis.
"I am excited about what both of them bring to the court," Thompson said. "They give us different looks. Both can set the ball very consistently, put our hitters in great spots, and understand the offense."
Yager, who played in just 10 matches her first three years at Michigan, still has the composure that comes with Big Ten experience, and at 6 feet tall gives the Bison more size up front. Thompson says she is a good blocker and defender, and her left-handedness is an advantage for the attacking game.
"With all the other hitters we have right now who are going to be drawing the blocks, she's going to be pretty wide open sometimes," Thompson said. "Being left-handed adds a whole new dimension because you can hit it in so many other places."
Riese, who is making the jump from high school to college ball, will have more of a learning curve. Thompson says the development will come in time.
"She's not necessarily as trained, but we'll develop all that," Thompson said. "She takes risks, she finds hitters, she connects with her hitters. Emily makes her teammates play better every time she steps on the court, gets them to compete and pushes the envelope, which is exciting in that role."
NDSU should continue to have one of the top attacking tandems in the league with the return of two All-Summit League performers. Senior middle hitterreturns after a summer training stint with the USA Volleyball A2 national team, and senior outside hitter was an alternate for the same program.
"They've both worked on their game so much since last year," Thompson said. "For Brynn, going to the tryout and being an alternate kind of sparked her and gave her a little extra fire. She really turned into a different attacker over the course of the spring."
Lambertson ranked fifth in the nation with a .410 hitting percentage and finished second on the team with 308 kills and 2.83 kills per set. Joki was the national leader with 49 block solos, and led the Bison with 397 kills, 3.23 kills per set and 36 aces.
Outside hitter Lauren Cammack is looking to expand upon a solid first year that saw her land on the Summit League All-Freshman Team despite missing a short time due to injury. She was third in the league stats in service aces per set.
"Lauren didn't necessarily get to put the full conference season together, which will be exciting for her to keep healthy and see what she can do in that type of role all the time," Thompson said. "Her top-spin jump serve is very consistent and we rely upon that."
It could be a breakout year for fellow sophomore, who stepped in at outside and middle hitter when needed during a pair of absences in the Bison lineup. Thompson says she matched and sometimes exceeded Lambertson's play during the two middle hitters' spring workouts.
"I think she'll be the one that will really come out and wow people," Thompson said. "She did a solid job and it never was anything flashy. She's doing a great job blocking and attacking, and is definitely pushing Megan every day which is something we need in that position."
Two freshmen join the ranks on the front line with middle hitterfrom Ramona, S.D., and outside hitter Jenni Fassbender from Kaukauna, Wis., who is projected to start as the right-side hitter.
"The blocking part was something I know Jenni was nervous about on the right side because you see so many balls there, but she's been doing a great job with it," Thompson said. "You tell her to do something and she goes after it a hundred percent and never doubts it. She just puts everything out there and has really smart instincts."
Thurow has stiff competition ahead of her at the middle hitter position, but Thompson likes her versatility in blocking and defense.
"In the middle you have to be fast, so there's less of a learning curve there sometimes if you just have a go-go-go mentality," Thompson said. "We've put her on the left side to block, we've put her on the right side to block, and she does a great job. Even if we throw her in the back court she has that same mentality and she makes plays."
NDSU's backcourt will be anchored by senior, who played every set of every match at libero last year. Her 547 digs ranked third most in school single-season history. Junior defensive specialist returns and Kishwaukee College transfer from Harvard, Ill., joins the Bison as a defensive specialist.
"I was really happy with our scrimmage. Defensively, we've been making a lot more plays than we have before," Thompson said. "That was exciting to see - a lot of touches, balls up, and keeping the ball in play. We're not going to get the perfect dig all the time. We just need to keep it off the floor and keep it going."
The Bison defense ranked 26th in the nation last year in digs per set, but was just sixth in the The Summit League. Meanwhile, Henning's 4.41 digs per set was ninth among Summit League individuals despite ranking sixth best in NDSU history. Thompson says that's a testament to the style of play in the league.
"There's a lot of things that go with that," Thompson said, referring to the number of blocks a team has, the ability to get kills and hit for a high percentage, and aggressive serving that sometimes leads to aces or free balls back over the net.
"When you look at our league, there are some really good defensive teams, and they have to be," Thompson said. "They don't have the size, so they don't have as big of a block. Oakland, South Dakota State and IUPUI all had great liberos and were digging way above where our individual players were."
NDSU continues to measure its defensive success by opponent hitting percentage, one of five categories the Bison led in the Summit League stats last year. The formula has been tested and worked, so don't expect things to change even with two new setters running the show.
"We still have the same offense, but you'll probably see a couple more sets run more frequently just because they're going to be a better connection based on each setter," Thompson said. "I want them to trust their instincts and make decisions on the court that are great, because they're both very capable of doing that."
The tests will come early and often as NDSU faces another challenging non-conference schedule. Five of the first seven matches are against NCAA playoff teams from a year ago in tournaments at Northern Illinois, Northern Colorado and Wisconsin. There are seven matches against teams in the top 50 of last year's NCAA Rating Percentage Index.
"We showed last year in the matches that we competed against Northern Iowa and Iowa State," Thompson said of two five-set losses to nationally ranked opponents. "I feel like we put ourselves out there and we got beat. But there were other matches where we didn't really put ourselves out there and those are the ones we regret more."
North Dakota State is on the road for its first 12 matches including the Summit League openers Sept. 15-16 at Omaha and South Dakota State. NDSU's home openers are Sept. 21-22 against Western Illinois and IUPUI, and the home schedule is highlighted by a five-game home stand in October. The Bison host the four-team Summit League tournament Nov. 16-17.