VERMILLION, S.D. | South Dakota’s volleyball team is looking to carry over momentum from a season-ending five-match win streak last season into this year's campaign.
The Coyotes beat every team in the Summit League last season, with the exception of regular season champion Fort Wayne, whom they took to five sets on the road.
It was the lone setback for Coach Matt Houk’s club over the final seven matches as South Dakota finished with a 14-14 overall record and 8-8 in the Summit.
“We feel very confident in what we’re capable of accomplishing,” said Houk, in his sixth season. “It’s our third season in the Summit League now, they’re comfortable in the arenas on the road and where we’re going to go and the style of our opponents.
“We beat everyone in the Summit League down the stretch last year, except IPFW.”
South Dakota, with five starters returning, are picked to finish fourth in the Summit League preseason poll.
“Preseason picks don’t really mean a whole lot,” Houk said. “It’s nice to know they give us some recognition on the run we went on last year. Now it’s time to push the envelope farther.”
Leading the list of returners is first-team Summit selection Kendall Kritenbrink, a junior out of Omaha Gross High School, who led the league in kills per set (4.30) last season.
“We only lost one real offensive person from last season, we return a lot of kids with a lot of experience,” Houk said. “Kendall led our conference in kills per set, it’s nice to bring back that kind of offensive threat.”
Kritenbrink recorded 404 kills, double the total of anyone else on the team while also taking over 1,000 swings at the net. Her .223 hitting percentage ranked third on the team and was above the team average of .205.
It’s a number Houk wouldn’t mind seeing going down as the team works its 5-1 offense around returning setter Tori Kroll, a senior, who was third in the Summit in assists per set (9.43).
“It will be a little bit match by match, depending on how we match up, but no doubt teams are going to defend Kendall,” Houk said. “We’re going to be able to establish the right side and left side.
“Take pressure off Kendall, not going to have to take as many swings as she has in the past.”
Sydney Dimke, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, who plays the right side, had 155 kills last season while senior Amber Aschoff, a 6-1 left side hitter, who prepped at perennial Iowa high school power Ankeny, had 200 kills a year ago.
“It’s her (Aschoff) senior year, highly motivated to go out strong,” Houk said. “She had a very impactful summer, stuck around and worked her butt off.”
Natalie Walseth, the third senior on the squad, is a 6-2 middle blocker who registered 160 kills and a team-high 74 total blocks last season.
There is currently a battle going on for the libero position between returning starter Riley Haug, a junior (373 digs) and sophomore Kaitlyn Hastings (108 digs) while two more returning letterwinners include sophomore Kelsey Biltoft (63 kills) and junior Melissa Firtko (47 kills).
South Dakota’s key to a successful season is simple according to Houk, who is 78-72 in his career.
“Go out on a nightly basis and be extremely aggressive, play the fast style of volleyball were accustomed too,” he said. “Stay together as a family, execute and finish and we'll find ourselves with more wins than losses, and hopefully find ourselves with a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“Focus on the here and now, focus on August 30 (season opening tournament in Columbia, Mo.) and what they have to do on August 30. That’s where my expectations lie right now.”
A run at a Summit League title is not too far-fetched for Houk’s 15-member Coyotes squad.
“The conference level is there, if we go out and execute on a nightly basis,” he said. “Proved to themselves at the end of the year (last season), they can compete with any team in the conference.
“Our conference is going to be very tough again.”
With the loss of Oakland, there are now eight teams playing volleyball in the Summit League with a double round robin schedule to account for 14 league matches.
South Dakota’s home opener at The Coyote Den in the DakotaDome is Monday, September 16 against North Dakota.