Northern State volleyball: Wolves rising to the occasion
It has been quite the interesting year for the Northern State women’s volleyball team. Since coach Brent Aldridge took over, winning has become commonplace, but it has never been quite like this.
The NSU Wolves currently stand at 20-0, a feat that crushes their previous best start of 9-0 set in 2013. It becomes an even more impressive accomplishment when you consider five Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference teams monopolize the nation’s top ten.
Aldridge took over the program in 2011. After finishing 13-14 in his first season, the former ASU head assistant has strung together three winning seasons. He was the 2013 NSIC Coach of the Year and the South Dakota Sportswriters Associations’ Women’s Coach of the Year after an impressive 22-8 record. It earned the Wolves their first National ranking (reaching No. 20) and brought recognition to three of their core players in Kelsey Chambers, Drew Smith and Tori Biatch.
“Until three years ago,” Aldridge said, “the volleyball program had never been ranked. Now we all have the same goal: we want to go to the NCAA tournament every year. We understand that this conference is such that you have to do some extraordinary things, something that has never been done, and our players understand that.”
Going 20-0 is pretty extraordinary. Reaching the No. 2 spot in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll is something that NSU has never before accomplished. How they got there is equally impressive.
It started on September 25th, when the Wolves faced off against then-No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth. They would rise victorious 3-0. Less than a month later, they would square off against yet another No. 1-ranked team -- this time Concordia-St. Paul -- and take them down 3-1. Two giants, two victories.
“There are lot of people in other conferences that would love to say they played a number one,” Aldridge said, “to have that opportunity to play that many great teams in the NSIC is awesome. I’m lucky to have kids that decided to come here and beat some of these teams.
We can’t not pay attention to any team in this conference. Half the conference is ranked and the other teams are equally as good. We’ve been humbled before. Those lessons are hard, and sometimes you have to go through them to understand how precious winning is.”
There is no question that this team has learned from losses throughout the years. From those lessons, they have remained focused and seemingly come together more as unit with each passing game. Perhaps that’s because as a program Aldridge and his players have matured and grown together.
“We all work together better than we have the previous years,” Sr. setter Drew Smith explained. “We’re like a family. We mesh a lot better, and we trust each other in our positions to do our job. We are able to keep our composure, stay calm in the situations that we may have gotten frantic before.”
Through it all, the most important thing that Aldridge has done is keep this team grounded. If there was one word to describe DII’s giant killers it would be humble.
“I found this quote: the quality of our expectations determine the quality of our actions,” Aldridge said. “I think our expectations are greatly enhanced this year — our expectations for each other as a program, as coaches, and as a players.
We’re a blue collar team, that’s just trying to get better every day. We talk about all the time as being very humble. We want to be the best Northern we can be in practice and this weekend. If we reach inside our heart and throw it out there on the court and we come up and we win then we are happy.”
This team is certainly a family. A family that Aldridge and assistant Emily Foster have watched mature into quite the dangerous force on the court. But winning records aren’t enough anymore.
“There is no moral victory anymore for this program,” Aldridge said. “If you want to change the expectation of the way you are viewed, the standards you set have to be different. The level of the student athletes that were are bringing in have the expectations to come here and do things that have never been done.”
At 20-0, the schedule doesn’t relent for the Wolves. They still face nationally ranked Southwest Minnesota St (No. 5), Wayne St. (No. 6), Augustana (No. 21) and Minnesota Duluth (No. 8).
“Every game is another opportunity to play,” Smith said. “Every chance you get to be on the court is a blessing, and you always want to have that drive to beat every team you can, whenever you can, wherever you are.”
“We’ve been together for four years,” Aldridge added. “They’ve been into wars already. Drew is a very experienced and talented setter and we have some good pieces around her -- as far as hitters -- and our ball control and back row is strong. It’s very good vibe, a good family vibe. I think for the most part our kids are very passionate with what they do.”