On To The Finals

South Dakota players and fans react to the announcement that USD would host the final of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship after Saturday’s semifinal victory over Tulsa. USD will host Georgia Tech today (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. in the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.

VERMILLION — The disappointment was immediate.

After rolling through the regular season with one loss and a top-50 RPI, followed by a loss in the conference tournament, the South Dakota volleyball team was left out of the NCAA Tournament field.

Seriously.

An hour later, however, the Coyotes were officially a part of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) field — essentially the NIT of the Division I volleyball universe.

There was suddenly a new goal.

“But then we heard we made it into this tournament, we were like, ‘OK, let’s go out and win it,’” freshman Elizabeth Juhnke said.

That became the unifying goal for the Coyotes: As long as they’re in this postseason event, they might as well just win the whole thing.

South Dakota will have that chance tonight (Tuesday) when it hosts Georgia Tech — of the Atlantic Coast Conference — in the NIVC championship match at 7 p.m. at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.

Whatever the mental flip was following being left out of the NCAA Tournament, the Coyotes (31-2) have found a way to embrace their new challenge.

“You have to get over that disappointment really quickly,” said senior Anne Rasmussen, the two-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year.

“We always talk about ‘What’s next?’ this season, and for us, it was getting here,” she added. “And our next step is winning it.”

Each step along the way through the NIVC bracket has featured USD playing on its home floor — a place where the Coyotes have won 18 straight matches.

There have been wins over Central Michigan, UNLV, UT-Arlington and Tulsa, but the fervor reached a new point in Saturday’s semifinals when 1,315 fans filed into the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.

That kind of support has allowed USD to remain at home for the duration of the tournament.

“Not everybody gets that opportunity, and I’m thankful for our fans and our administration for making this a possibility for us,” head coach Leanne Williamson said.

In a season filled with historic accomplishments, the chance to win a postseason championship on their home floor could be yet another for the Coyotes.

No longer does USD play its home matches in front of maybe 200-300 fans on the DakotaDome football field or in front of maybe the same number on the second floor of the Dome.

Less than a decade later, USD’s volleyball program is now playing for championships in front of what could threaten the volleyball attendance record at the SCSC.

“To see the growth of the program, the growth of the fan base, the growth of the facilities and the community, everybody rallying around what this volleyball team is doing has been absolutely incredible to be a part of,” said Williamson, in her 11th season with the program.

And now USD will see another first tonight: Georgia Tech (25-8) will be the first member of the Power-5 Atlantic Coast Conference to visit the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.

That’s all that stands between USD and the realization of a goal set following the news from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

“We were obviously disappointed without the NCAA bid, but when we knew we were in this tournament, our goal was to win it,” sophomore setter Madison Jurgens said.

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