VIKINGS TAKE DOWN No. 1
No. 7 Augustana volleyball added another milestone to its historic season by knocking off the No. 1 team in Division II, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, on Oct. 22.
The Vikings won 25-17, 25-21, 22-25, 25-14, giving them their first win over the top team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll since Sept. 7, 2002 when Augustana swept West Texas A&M.
The Vikings cruised through the beginning of play in the daunting Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, winning their first nine matches in the league—two of those against top-5 teams—before losing three of their next five, including blowing a two-sets-to-none lead in a five-set loss to No. 2 Concordia University.
With four days between the team’s third loss and the Duluth match, it would’ve been understandable if the Vikings began to worry.
“Some people may have been nervous, but we are pretty good about moving on,” head coach Dan Meske said. “We don’t beat Duluth without taking a step back and evaluating ourselves. You’ll face a lot of adversity in this conference if you can’t deal with failure, look yourself in the mirror and do things better.”
Meske takes pride in his team’s ability to do just that. Augustana edged Concordia in each of the first two sets before letting the Golden Bears steal three straight sets and the match victory. After going up 2-0 and losing the third set against Duluth, Meske knew the team needed to stay calm and keep its foot on the gas.
“We are good learners,” he said. “We knew we’d been in that position against Concordia. You don’t beat a good teams by playing average—you have to keep attacking.”
So that’s what the Vikings did. Augustana raced out to a 16-5 lead in the fourth set and finished strong as it handed the nation’s top team its first loss.
“After we dropped the third set, we knew we were still going to win [the match],” senior setter Anna Sykora said. “You could feel it on the court. We were completely in charge of the match.”
Junior middle blocker Bailey Koch said the emotions on the court from the win’s increasing inevitability were memorable.
“It was so fun and freeing being on the court during [the fourth set],” she said. “We had complete control and were working as a team. That was the coolest thing to see—us all clicking at the same time against one of the best teams in the nation.”
Koch led the way for Augustana. She had a career-high 16 kills while also getting it done defensively with seven blocks and four digs. Sykora also set a career-high with 57 assists.
“Even when Bailey doesn’t have stats like that, she’s one of the hardest competitors in the NSIC,” Meske said. “She leads [for our team] in that way. If you’re walking up the stairs, she’ll sprint by and race you up. That’s her mindset. Having someone like that is contagious.”
As the Vikings are accustomed, they quickly moved on. “It’s fun to have those achievements, but we’re only as good as [we play in] our next match,” Meske said. “With the NSIC Tournament looming, if you lose sight of the main goal, things can go south real quick.”
His players echo his sentiment.
“We have the deepest team in the country, we know that,” Koch said. “We always knew we were capable of being the best [team], and the Duluth game defended that…But we had 12 hours to celebrate that win and then we look on to the next matches. That’s how we are going to be successful.”
Augustana took care of business the following weekend with road wins over Bemidji State and Minnesota-Crookston last Friday and Saturday, and it should be favored in each of its four remaining matches. Three of those come against teams that are well-below .500, and the other is against No. 14 Northern State, which Augustana beat 3-1 in Aberdeen Sept. 23.
Even with their remarkable season to date, the Vikings might not host an NSIC tournament match if the regular season ended today. The top-eight teams qualify for the tournament with the top-four seeds hosting.
The Vikings are tied for fourth in the NSIC with Winona State, which has beat Augustana head-to-head. However, Winona plays Duluth in the final match of the season, so it’s conceivable Augustana could move ahead of the Warriors.
“We love playing at the Elmen, man,” Meske said. “Our fans deserve to see a [playoff] home match … There’ll be some interesting matches around the league [that might determine seeding] but we can’t pay attention to any of that. It’s all going to work out and we just have to take care of ourselves.”
Augustana returns to action against the University of Mary Friday at 7 p.m. in Bismarck, N.D.