The Great Plains Athletic Conference put three teams into the semifinals at the NAIA Volleyball Championship a year ago, and the conference seems poised to have another strong run this week at the Tyson Events Center:
When Katie Placke is fired up, it’s hard to slow her down.
A perfect example came in the Great Plains Athletic Conference Tournament title match against sixth-ranked Dordt. During the showdown between the two teams which decided last year’s NAIA national championship, the 5-11 Hastings senior setter provided 20 kills, 18 assists and 10 digs along with six blocks in a four-set victory.
One of four returning starters from last year’s 33-3 squad, Placke was named the GPAC’s player of the year. Heading into pool play, she leads the 25-2 GPAC regular-season and tournament champions with 311 kills and 514 assists.
“She’s a big part of what we do,” said Hastings Coach Matt Buttermore. “She is high capacity. She likes to set and hit, which is hard to do. Not many people want to do it. She is athletically able.
“More important, she became a better setter because she is a hitter. She was fired up (in the GPAC final). She wanted to win. When that happens, you have to try really had to stop her. You might not be able to.”
Placke and fellow setter Claire Hamburger (465 assists) were both starting setters a year ago. Two more all-around players return for the Broncos, 5-9 junior outside hitter Casey Krolikowski (221 kills, 234 digs, 46 blocks) and 6-foot junior outside hitter Sage Meyer (116 kills, 153 digs).
Andrea LaVene, a 6-2 senior middle hitter, has 179 kills and 97 blocks for a team that began the season with a 15-0 record and was ranked first in the nation until dropping a five-game GPAC match to Northwestern Sept. 30. Cassidy Ostrand, a 5-11 senior outside hitter, has 122 kills while 6-foot senior middle/right side Catherine Williams has 108 kills.
Jill Bax, a 5-5 senior, was named the GPAC’s libero of the year, recording a team-high 432 digs. Freshman Lucy Skoch, a 6-2 middle hitter with 120 blocks, ranks sixth in the country with her 1.4 block average.
“We’re playing faster and more consistent,” said Buttermore. “In October in the GPAC, there’s a lot of high-level matches, so our team is definitely used to the pressure. There are good teams out there we haven’t seen yet. We have a chance to win every match. It comes down to making plays, long rallies, converting easy opportunities and taking advantage of all the opportunities we can generate.”
The fourth-ranked Defenders were tri-champions of the GPAC during the regular season and finished as the tournament runner-up to Hastings.
"Those are tremendous experiences and rewards to a team that has worked hard and been focused all season," Dordt Coach Chad Hanson said.
The Defenders enter the tournament with a 29-6 record looking to improve on last year's national runner-up finish to the Broncos. Dordt brings plenty of experienced offensive firepower into the tournament led by junior Ema Altena who has 556 kills, second in the nation. Junior setter Jamie Gesink, the GPAC Setter of the Year, has 1,326 assists to rank 14th overall.
Both players were all-tournament picks at the national tournament a year ago while senior Summer Jansen, a Hull Western Christian graduate, looks to continue the strong play as a defensive specialist she began at the Tyson last season.
"Last year at this national tournament she just shined and was really a key component to our success during the tournament," said Hanson of his libero who has 654 digs on the season. "We changed up our lineup leading up to the national tournament (last year) putting her back in that libero spot where she had been before. It paid great benefits to us and she ran well with it.
"This season she has been national player of the week multiple times and conference player of the week three or four times."
The Defenders will face No. 13 Missouri Baptist, No. 20 Northwest, Washington and Ottawa (Kan.) in its pool.
Hanson said his team is focused on making it through pool play, but acknowledges that playing on Friday is a goal for his team.
"With us being the top seed in our pool and ranked No. 4 any set that we relinquish, any set teams take from us is something we want to guard against," he said. "With the experience of our group, with the talent that is there, ... I believe we will enjoy the outcome and trust the process."
Veteran Coach Kyle Van Den Bosch didn’t know for sure what to expect out of his young Northwestern squad this season. After all, he started four freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
The Red Raiders, though, put together a 28-5 regular season, shared the Great Plains Athletic Conference title with Hastings and Dordt, and were No. 5 in the final NAIA regular season rankings.
“It has been a really special regular season for us,” said Van Den Bosch, in his 15th season as Northwestern head coach. “We knew we were talented but didn’t know if all the parts would gel to make a great team. This year’s team really enjoys playing together and it shows on the court.”
Northwestern is the top seed in Pool E and will face Lourdes (Ohio) Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Tyson Events Center. No. 12 College of Idaho and No. 21 Bellevue are also part of the pool.
It’s the 13th trip to the NAIA Volleyball National Championship for Northwestern, but its first since 2014.
“The national tournament this year is a wide open field of who will make it out of pool play and who will be the last couple of teams playing,” Van Den Bosch said. “As it should be, the teams that get confident and are playing well will make it out of pool play and beyond. We are looking forward to the excitement and challenges of the tournament.”
Junior Lauryn Hilger and sophomores A.J. Horstman and Anna Kiel were each first team All-GPAC honorees.
A repeat first-team pick, Hilger put down 2.6 kills per set as one of the team’s best outside hitters. She ranked seventh in the GPAC with a .279 kill efficiency and hit for double figures in 10 matches and also leads the team with 2.8 digs per set.
Horstman averaged 2.9 kills per set and had 16 matches with at least 10 kills. She ranked in the top 10 in the GPAC in both hitting percentage (27 percent) and ace serves (41) and had 71 blocks.
Kiel, a transfer from Iowa State, came up with an average of 3.5 kills per set from her middle hitter position, hitting at a .375 clip, second in the conference and ninth in NAIA. Kiel has 85 blocks, has hit for double figures in a team-best 26 matches and has three double-doubles.
Freshman setter Lacey Wacker was named the GPAC Freshman of the Year and along with freshman hitter Makenzie Fink was a second-team all-league pick.
Midland overcame heavy graduation losses (five) and some adversity this season to be back in the national tournament for the fifth straight season after reaching the Final Four a year ago.
“The players, the coaches are all just really excited to be a part of the national tournament again,” said eighth-year head coach Paul Giesselmann. “When you look at what we graduated from our Final Four team we lost five key contributors from that team. We really felt like this year was going to be a big challenge to compete in the GPAC but let alone be nationally ranked and get back to the national tournament.
“For us to finish No. 11 in the country and get an automatic bye to the final site has been a really great thing for our players. We dealt with a lot of injuries this year, so for our team to overcome those injuries to again play a lot of young players because of who we graduated, it’s been a heck of a year for us.”
The Warriors (19-9) offensive attack is built around a pair of three-time first-team All-GPAC selections in juniors Priscilla O’Dowd and Jessica Peters.
A two-time All-American and the GPAC Freshman of the Year in 2015, O’Dowd, a former Papillion La Vista High School standout leads the GPAC with a .396 hitting percentage while her 358 kills equate to 3.5 per set. Peters, meanwhile, averages 10 assists per set.
The Warriors normal starting rotation includes just one senior in Jessica Neki, who earned second-team All-GPAC honors in her first season as a libero. Two freshmen in Sydney Morehouse and Maggie Hiatt are joined by sophomore Nicole Skovsende and junior Jenny Bair along with juniors O’Dowd and Peters.
Midland dropped matches to Carroll (Mont), second-ranked Viterbo (Wis.) and eighth-ranked Grand View (Iowa) to begin the season. They avenged the loss to Carroll and also have already defeated pool play opponent Saint Xavier this season.
“For us to have any chance at all to get out of pool play were going to have to really play error-free volleyball,” said the veteran coach who also led College of Saint Mary to a Final Four appearance in 2000. “We’re built different this year than we were last year, obviously, because of our youth and who we graduated.
“We’re going to have to serve and pass better than our opponents each day to have any chance to come out and again play error-free. We’ve got to force our opponents to score their own points because several of the teams we’re going to play their simple more talented than we are, but our girls have found a way to be resilient this year and I’m just really proud of what they have accomplished.”
Morningside’s rugged non-conference schedule and daily battles in the GPAC hope to pay dividends in its second straight appearance and sixth in school history.
Coach Beth Donnelly’s third-year as the Mustangs head coach has seen a steady rise in the GPAC standings from eighth to sixth and this year’s fifth-place finish.
With an 18-12 overall record where 11 of the 12 losses come against national tournament qualifying teams, the Mustangs are the third seed in Pool H and will face ninth-ranked Columbia (Mo.), eighth-ranked Grand View (Iowa) and Tabor (Kan.)
“Getting a draw that has two top-10 teams in it is pretty tough,” said Donnelly. “We knew we weren’t going to be in the middle because that’s where all the other GPAC teams are at.
“It’s definitely a tough draw, super competitive, we’re going to have to be on the best time, our best game at the best time of the year.”
Morningside, with five seniors on its roster, won 10 GPAC contests for the first time since 2011 and with a strong pool play showing could reach 20 match wins in back-to-back seasons.
Nikki Oberfoell, one of the seniors, earned first-team All-GPAC honors as a libero after leading the league in digs with 534. Attackers Jayde Bergmann (275 kills), Jenn Buyert (247 kills) and Ashley Vande Stouwe along with defensive specialist Morgan Gourley (252 digs) are playing their final matches in a Morningside uniform.
“They’ve been the foundation for sure, they’re the front runners, they have been the ones we have had to lean on in pressure situations,” said Donnelly. “All though it’s a big task at times and I put a lot of pressure on them, they’re getting better and better. Sad thing I wish I had another year with them because they are starting to understand what it means to play under pressure and to lead.
“There is no doubt they’re going to leave everything on the court the last few days and hopefully we can play hard for them as long as possible.”
Emma Gerber (239 kills), Brittni Olson (220 kills), a pair of sophomores along with freshman Krista Zenk (190 kills) are more offensive options at the disposal of sophomore setter Callie Alberico (1,026 assists).