Back-to-Back for the attack

UND Volleyball highly touted as it departs Big Sky for the Summit League

Ashley Brueggeman, Alivia Fraase, Mark Pryor

Ashley Brueggeman (left) and Alivia Fraase (right) flank head coach Mark Pryor at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Brueggeman and Fraase are two of the three starters returning from last year’s NCAA tournament roster. Despite this, Pryor is confident that 2018 is far from a “rebuild” season. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

The opening line of LL Cool J’s 1990 chart topper “Mama Said Knock You Out” set an iconic tone for the both the artist and the new decade — with a punch.

“Don’t call it a comeback,” the New York City-based rapper affirmed, dismissing any notion he’d been on hiatus after his breakout 1980s hits.

Borrowing a similar vibe, UND Fighting Hawks Volleyball coach Mark Pryor made a statement via Twitter on July 2, about a month before his team’s first practices. He just as well could have tweeted, “Don’t call it a rebuild,” asserting that his 2018 team may be young (nine true freshman, a red shirt and two sophomores) but it’s loaded with talent that’s bound to surprise.

“Everyone’s been asking if it is a rebuilding year for us,” Pryor told UND Today. “I honestly believe that when you come out and say yes to something like that, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So, no, it’s not a rebuild…. as coaches our jobs are to put the most consistent product on the floor as possible.”

His actual tweet read: “2018 is not a rebuild. We are selfless. We are relentless. We are loyal. We compete both internally and externally. We set the standard. We are built on a foundation of loyalty, strength, energy and discipline. We are North Dakota.”

The latter sentences are the teams credo that epitomizes its identity on and off the court.

Preseason love

And as North Dakota Volleyball leaves behind the Big Sky Conference, which it dominated the past two years with championships, and begins a new foray in the Summit League, its identity hasn’t gone unnoticed by its new conference mates and others. Despite only three starters returning from last year’s NCAA Tournament team and the addition of 10 players who weren’t even on that team, North Dakota Volleyball is receiving strong consideration to continue its winning ways in the Summit.

Some Division I volleyball insiders already are giving the Fighting Hawks the nod to win the Summit, ahead of traditional conference powerhouses University of Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and the University of South Dakota.

The Summit League is slated to release its official 2018 preseason volleyball rankings in the coming days. Expect the conference newbies from UND to land somewhere near the top of that list, too.

However, Pryor isn’t dwelling on early season rankings.

“The one thing we are not going to allow to become a question mark is how we prepare and our expectations for ourselves,” Pryor said. “Our expectation is simple: we just want to represent the University of North Dakota the best we can and put the most physical team on the floor that we can.”

North Dakota Volleyball dominated the past two years of its membership in the Big Sky Conference with back-to-back championships. Pryor is excited to get back to traditional, regional rivalries in the Summit League. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

North Dakota Volleyball dominated the past two years of its membership in the Big Sky Conference with back-to-back championships. Pryor is excited to get back to traditional, regional rivalries in the Summit League. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Return to rivals

What excites Pryor about the new conference is that UND will be reunited with many traditional sports foes, such as North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Nebraska-Omaha, and even Denver, which has been one of UND’s arch rivals in hockey since the 1950s.

“We are going to see fans that are going to be a little more invested in the games due to the rivalry aspect,” he said.

UND junior libero Alivia Fraase, a native of Fargo, is looking forward to duplicating the atmosphere at UND-North Dakota State volleyball games in more places around the new league. In recent years, the annual Fighting Hawks-Bison tilts have been packed to the rafters and slanted in UND’s favor in the wins category.

These kind of rivalry games at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, the home of UND Volleyball, give off an energy that is felt by the players on the court, Fraase says.

“Just the loudness of the crowd,” she said. “You have to drown it out sometimes because it gets so loud and becomes overwhelming if you think about it too much.”

Junior libero Alivia Fraase, a Fargo native, looks forward to the energy of home games and leading a young squad into their first Summit League foray. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Junior libero Alivia Fraase (center), a Fargo native, looks forward to the energy of home games and leading a young squad into their first Summit League foray. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Internal chemistry

For junior outside hitter Ashley Brueggeman, an Eden Prairie, Minn. native and a key contributor for the Hawks the past two seasons, her attention is squarely on internal team chemistry.

“I’m really looking forward to the different styles of play of the teams in the Summit,” Brueggeman said. “But we aren’t really focused on that right now… we are more focused on our own game and seeing how we can adjust once we get there.”

Pryor also likes how the new league will provide shorter travel distances for away games, which is a blessing for his student-athletes who miss less class time.

“That’s the whole reason they’re here; they’re here to get a degree,” Pryor said. “Our team Grade Point Average, which has been very solid, is only going to go up because they are going to be in class more.”

Added experience

With the departures of star players such as towering North Dakota native and all-everything Faith Dooley, backrow blaster Tamara Merseli and fellow Serbian Teodora Tepavac, whose serves were often too hot to handle, Coach Pryor spotlights a couple of new freshmen in Darian Chwialkowski, out of West Fargo; and Brynn Nieukirk, Washington, Ill., who could get early shots on the court this year.

“Our freshman class is talented and athletic but they’re still freshmen,” Pryor said. “We realize that we are too close to something special to just go out with a bunch of young kids and let them just figure it out on their own. We want to put them in a position be successful instead of asking them to do too much.”

So Pryor also brought in experienced players from around the world to augment his relatively young roster and mitigate the loss of so much senior leadership from last year. Those players include Kayla Williams, a transfer from the University of Connecticut who led the Huskies in scoring; and Roosa Rautio, a freshman setter who has high-level international experience in Finland.

Pryor said his players, thus far, have shown the commitment needed to take UND Volleyball from the top of the Big Sky to the peaks of the Summit League.

“It’s really going to be run to watch how this team progresses athletically,” Pryor said. “Everyone is reminding me that we only have two seniors on our roster, and I just say to them ‘well, we only had one senior in 2016 and that worked out pretty well for us.’”

That was first year UND Volleyball’s back-to-back title run though the Big Sky.