Nov. 17, 2010

By Amy Farnum

Southwest Minnesota State will have its hands full in the NCAA Division II Womens Volleyball Central Regional this week, but stiff competition is nothing new for the Mustangs.

The Mustangs are the No. 1 seed and will host the Central Regional for the first time in school history after advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight season by posting a 26-3 record and finishing second in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with an 18-2 mark. SMSU will host four fellow NSIC members, as well as three squads from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, in a regional field that has seven of its eight teams ranked in the top 16 in the nation.

SMSU head coach Terry Culhane talked with his team a few weeks ago after learning the Mustangs were ranked No. 1 in the region with a good possibility of hosting the tournament. After that team pow-wow, the Mustangs finished the remainder of the season with a flawless record, putting them in position to host the regional.

Its a crazy, competitive region,” said Culhane. Were excited to host and play at home. Weve had a great year up to this point, and hopefully it keeps going.”

I didnt want to get my hopes up, but when I looked up on the screen and saw our name, I freaked out,” said junior middle blocker Devin Diedrich. I was crying because I was really excited and super happy for our team. It was an emotional and exciting moment.”

In addition to fourth-ranked SMU, No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul, No. 3 Wayne State (Neb.), No. 7 Minnesota Duluth, No. 10 Nebraska-Kearney, No. 13 Metro State and No. 16 Minnesota State are all in the current AVCA Division II Top 25. The eighth-seeded Colorado School of Mines is the only squad not appearing in the national poll.

We have a great deal of respect for all the teams in the region, and five of them are in our conference,” said Culhane. Weve played everyone in the regional except for Nebraska-Kearney. Weve shown that were capable of beating them. Weve also shown that we are capable of getting beat by them. We just need to put good matches together, and right now we just need to worry about the Colorado School of Mines.”

The Mustangs have compiled a 7-3 record against six of the seven regional teams, including splits against Concordia, Wayne State and UMD - all of which were ranked No. 1 at some point in the season.

We have three losses on the season, and all three of them are to teams that are currently or have been No. 1 in the country,” said Culhane. Weve clearly lost to good teams, but weve also beaten those three teams as well. We know we have a chance, and it will really come down to who puts together the best string of matches. Our regular season experience can only help us preserve throughout the regional tournament.”

SMSU has participated in an NCAA Regional seven previous times, but this year may be the Mustangs best shot of capturing the elusive Regional Championship. The Mustangs have posted an all-time mark of 3-7 in the NCAA Tournament, all in regional play.

Weve had a number of good teams, but I think this is probably our best team,” said Culhane. I think it is probably because we have experience, and several kids who have previously played in the regional tournament.

We have a good setter, good ball handling. Were a decent defensive team, and I dont think we have any glaring weak areas. When you get down to this point and you are playing teams that are equal in caliber of play, a lot of times there is not much that separates them. I think weve been able to close the gap in those areas, and make ourselves competitive with the best teams in the country.”

Diedrich, who paces the Mustangs with 4.39 kills per set and a .340 hitting percentage, believes that the teams chemistry is the key to their successful season.

I think the most exciting thing is how well weve played together and meshed,” said Diedrich. It was really exciting to be ranked No. 1 in the nation for a while, and it was awesome to get the No. 1 spot in the region, but to me, team chemistry is a huge thing and I think weve done a good job with that.”

There has been a buzz about the SMSU campus and community of Marshall, Minn., since the NCAA Tournament selection announcement, which thrills the players and coaching staff.

People are jacked up about us hosting a regional,” said Diedrich. We get a really good home crowd, and I think more people will come out because they like that were doing well. I think the crowds are going to be really intense, and the energy is going to be really high. Thats what we love to play with a lot of high energy so I think that will be a great atmosphere for us.”

Top-seeded Southwest Minnesota State faces Colorado School of Mines, who the Mustangs swept earlier this season, in the regional quarterfinals on Nov. 18. No. 4 Nebraska-Kearney-No. 5 Minnesota, No. 2 Concordia-St. Paul-No. 7 Minnesota State and No. 3 Wayne State-No. 6 Metro State face in the remaining quarterfinal matches on Thursday. Concordia, which went 20-0 in the NSIC this year, has won the last three Central Region titles and has gone on to win the national championship in each of the last three seasons.