VERMILLION — The conference tournament may have come at the perfect time for the University of South Dakota volleyball team.
Having lost six of their last eight matches, the third-seeded Coyotes open Summit League Tournament action today (Friday) in Indianapolis at 3:30 p.m. Central against sixth-seeded Western Illinois.
Still, recent struggles or not, USD (18-12, 9-5) has already defeated the other five qualifiers at least once this season.
“That’s what the coaches keep illustrating, that we beat every single team,” senior setter Tori Kroll said after Wednesday’s practice in the DakotaDome.
“That’s in the back of our mind at least, knowing we can do it.”
Dating back one month, the Coyotes have lost all six of their road matches, including a 3-0 loss at Iowa State. Last week saw USD drop a pair of 3-2 decisions at Omaha and Western Illinois.
“We’re always disappointed when we lose, but realistically, it goes to prove how hard it is to go on the road and be successful,” said Coyote head coach Matt Houk, who is 96-84 in five seasons.
“We have nothing to hang our heads on; we’ve played really good volleyball lately.”
As they have throughout the season.
USD leads the league in total kills (1509), assists (1401) and total blocks (276), and also ranks second in hitting percentage (.236).
Not only with those numbers but having just played Western Illinois (12-17, 6-8) could benefit the Coyotes, Houk said.
“There can be a real positive for that. But it’s probably the same thing for them,” he said. “They’re probably feeling good about having just beaten us.
“We just saw their best effort, and I’m sure they’ll try to mimic that.”
And it also allowed the Coyotes to practice against those schemes with the Leathernecks’ style fresh in their minds, Kroll said.
“We know what our weaknesses are and their strengths are, we can just use that to advantage,” she said. “We have the tapes that are still new, and we’ve worked on some new things.”
One such alteration, Houk said, was a blocking scheme that involves sophomore middle Kelsey Biltoft sliding over to the right side to defend that side of the net.
In today’s (Friday) other first-round match, No. 4 Fort Wayne plays No. 5 North Dakota State. Top-ranked IUPUI and No. 2 Denver got first-round byes — Denver plays the winner between USD and Western Illinois.
If the Coyotes are to advance to Sunday’s championship match, they will have played three matches in three days.
And that actually might play into their hands — USD fared well in non-conference tournaments. The Coyotes won eight of their first 11 matches at tournaments at Missouri, Washington State and Montana State.
The winner of Sunday afternoon’s 1 p.m. championship match earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Still, even having qualified for the tournament a year after narrowly missing out, the Coyotes aren’t content with just showing up, Houk said. He recalled his days as an assistant at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, when his team one year won the league regular season title but lost in the tournament final.
“I hope there’s zero satisfaction that we made it,” Houk said. “Getting in is great, but it’s only one step.”