The North Dakota volleyball team has taken the definition of road trip to a new level.
The Fighting Hawks, in their final season in the Big Sky Conference before joining the Summit League in 2018, opened 2017 with a gargantuan road trip over two weekends that saw them play 10 matches — four within 36 hours — during a nine-day span across four states. The trip covered 5,000 miles.
Even more impressive is that North Dakota, under the direction of fourth-year coach and reigning Big Sky coach of the year Mark Pryor, came back to Grand Forks with a 9-1 record. North Dakota sits at No. 13 in the most recent VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
They are finally home Wednesday when they play host to in-state rival North Dakota State.
“We’re a one-bid league,” Pryor said bluntly, referring to the only hope a Big Sky team has to make the NCAA tournament is by winning the Big Sky tournament. Last year, North Dakota was 26-10, 14-2 in the Big Sky, and then lost at Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the school’s first NCAA Division I Tournament after two in Division II.
“We’re not about playing the RPI game or nonsense like that,” Pryor said. “We wanted to play as many teams as we could to see where we were at. We wanted to see different styles of play and different strengths. We wanted to see where we needed to get better at.”
The Fighting Hawks trip started in late August at Ole Miss where they played four matches. They beat Chattanooga in five, Ole Miss in five, Louisiana Tech in five and Florida A&M in four.
That was on Saturday, August 26. The team then hopped a bus to Atlanta where it faced Georgia Tech the next day, Sunday, and dropped a 3-0 decision — its lone loss of the extended road trip. As Pryor noted, the team did not arrive into Atlanta until after midnight and then played at 4 the next afternoon.
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In terms of logistics for the first leg, North Dakota flew from Grand Forks, N.D., to Minneapolis and from Minneapolis to Memphis, where it then bused a little more than an hour to Oxford and the University of Mississippi campus.
From there, the team headed back to North Dakota and was home for about 40 hours. And then the following Thursday, the Fighting Hawks were at it again, coming away with another five-set victory, this time at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, N.M. North Dakota hung around to play UNLV in Las Cruces the next day and won 3-1.
But why not play some more volleyball on that Friday, September 1? And why not do it in another state?
And continuing on with their road-warrior mentality, North Dakota topped it off with a 16-hour travel day back to campus that Sunday, starting with a 6 a.m. flight out of El Paso, a monster layover in Denver and an arrival time back to town around 7 p.m. About an hour later VolleyballMag.com caught up with Pryor, the former head coach at Louisiana-Monroe and Texas A&M-Commerce and assistant head coach at Baylor.
North Dakota senior setter Sydney Griffin, the Big Sky player of the year in 2016 and a VolleyballMag.com All-American honorable-mention selection, also spoke of the interpersonal side of the trip.
“Normally with girls on long trips, they can get catty,” Griffin said. “We had nothing like that. We were able to learn about each other more and we got to see how mentally tough we are in situations. We became a lot more mentally and even physically stronger from that trip.”
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Fighting Hawks senior middle blocker Faith Dooley, the Big Sky tournament MVP in 2016, gave the trip high marks.
“As a whole, we dealt with it pretty well,” Dooley said. “We were pretty tired, but when we got out there and played, we played with a lot of energy and kept it up through the whole trip. I wouldn’t have picked anybody else to do a trip like this with. The good chemistry this team has played a big role in our success.”
Pryor said the team prepared for the long sojourn well ahead of time.
“We knew this was coming,” he said. “We didn’t do a lot of jumping during two-a-days. We knew the trip would be a lot of pounding on the kids. We used this trip as a mirror to figure out what we are good at and what we can get better at. The kids accepted the challenge and embraced it. There wasn’t a lot of talk about being physically tired or mentally weary.”
Pryor noted the team watched no film on any of its 10 opponents during the trip.
“It was all about us and not worrying about what our opponent does,” he said. “We were going to control what we could control and if it was good it enough it was going to be good enough. If not, we were going to accept it and move on. The inward focus was a big positive for them.”
Besides packing a ton of volleyball into a short timeframe, the team also was able to sample some unique cuisine along the way. Dooley said her favorite was Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers in El Paso.
“The Cane sauce was very good,” she said. “I guess they mix ketchup, mayo and ranch dressing together. The sweet tea was pretty good, too.”
Griffin gave a big thumbs up to Insomnia Cookies in El Paso.
“One of our assistant coaches, her boyfriend came back with these insomniac cookies,” Griffin said. “It’s a cookie place open in El Paso until 3 a.m. They were under-done, which probably isn’t very good for us, but they were very good.”
Pryor pointed out he enjoyed some barbeque and some churros he had on the trip.
Griffin noted one of the challenges on the road is balancing proper nutrition and rest with other activities, including schoolwork, socialization and volleyball.
“In El Paso the hotel we were at had this nice area outside where we could do our homework before the matches and enjoy the weather,” said Griffin, who noted Denver International Airport is a frequent layover stop where the team enjoys hitting the Jamba Juice stand.
“The big thing is keeping the routine you have at home. When I wake up I do my homework first and then go practice and then take a nap before the match. I don’t like eating unhealthy food, though we were spoiled with those cookies. We try and keep it simple with the food. Panera is a go-to place for us because of their salads and soups and Chipotle is where we go after the game. You actually get a lot more rest on the road because you don’t have classes or weight lifting. You have to make sure you get a good night’s rest instead of staying up on your phone or watching TV. It’s tempting because you have to stay connected to the world.”
But travel is nothing new for North Dakota, as Pryor explained.
“You don’t have a lot of choices up here in North Dakota,” he began. “One, you don’t have a lot of choices on where you fly out of. Two, there are not a lot of choices with what carrier you use and three, there are not a lot of teams that want to come up the Arctic Tundra and play us. We go where teams can fit us in the schedule.
“The Big Sky is the same way. There are a couple of spots where we have four-hour bus rides one way and you get there and you have a match the next day. For everybody else, North Dakota is their longest trip. Our closest place is Bozeman, Montana, and that’s a 12-and-half-hour bus ride. Our kids would rather bus it on a sleeper bus instead of flying to Minneapolis and going to Denver and then to Bozeman. We’re comfortable with it. We know we can’t play the Manitoba Moose every match. We’re only 70 miles from the Canadian border. Minneapolis is four-and-half hours to the southeast. If you go west, the next Division I school is in Bozeman with Montana State. We know about the travel and we’ve embraced it.”
In a rarity, North Dakota is actually home this week. The Fighting Hawks host in-state rival North Dakota State Wednesday in a match that is expected to come close to selling out the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
North Dakota then hosts the UND Classic this weekend at the center where George Washington, Appalachian State and South Dakota State will appear. And then it’s on the road again for the Fighting Hawks with the Country Inn & Suites Invitational hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (Cal Poly, Green Bay and IUPUI await).
“We usually host a tournament that first or second weekend,” said Pryor, whose team still has trips after Green Bay to such locales as Cedar City, Utah, Greeley, Colo., Sacramento, Portland, Ore., Bozeman and Missoula, Mont., Ames, Iowa, Cheney Wash., and Moscow, Idaho.. “By the third weekend, there might be snow on the ground. We have to get these teams out before the snow gets here.”
Pryor said the program has done well in dealing with the recent distraction of the school cutting some of its athletic programs. The university shaved three programs earlier this year as part of deep budget cuts. North Dakota said goodbye to women’s hockey and both its men’s and women’s swimming teams. The move left the university with 18 athletic programs.
“I think most universities are dealing with how to fund everything,” he said. “When North Dakota went from Division II to Division I we had something like 23 sports. Kids were asking why sports were getting cut. We sat them down and explained everything to them. We had more sports than some power-five conference schools.
North Dakota (9-1) moves up two spots to 13 in this week's poll. https://t.co/v3FJG0Y6cy— UND Volleyball (@UNDvolleyball) September 5, 2017
“Am I happy ours was not cut? Of course I am. We average more than 1,100 fans per match and are in the top 15 in NCAA attendance. There were some definite tensions when this was going on. Our team did a good job of eliminating the noise from last year. We made the decision to play as well as we could and do what we were going to do and not talk about it. We didn’t want the kids to get into a vortex of insecurity and wondering if their sport was going to be cut. If you do that, you are going to focus more on the negatives and start looking at things that aren’t really there. We decided to focus on the positives.”
And this recently finished road trip was a major positive. Pryor added he pulled the trigger on the trip mainly because of the older, experienced roster he has. Pryor, who has led North Dakota to three 20-win seasons in his three years in Grand Forks, returns six starters including his libero from last year’s team that went 22-10 and earned the program’s first NCAA tournament bid.
“The whole reason we did the trip was we have an older team and we knew we’d have all the travel and wouldn’t be able to practice a lot,” he said. “We knew we’d have to work things out in matches. We had that comfort level.”
Pryor saw his team, while tried physically and mentally, get stronger as the trip wore on.
“The last two days we dropped one set,” he said. “We played two teams in two different states on the same day and were successful. It got down to the last night, one of our starters didn’t know what our record was. That was a good sign to me. They were more concerned about today and about the overall program.
“The kids learned so much from this trip. When we looked at the schedule, one person on our staff said we’d go 5-5, another said 6-3 and another 7-3. We ended up playing with house money. At one point we played four matches in 36 hours. The kids had a ball. This will help us this season.”