2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- St. Thomas

If someone told me that I would be able to watch seven quality volleyball programs' practices in six days, I would have laughed at them. Now, seven days into the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour, I understand why the MIAC is considered one of the premiere volleyball conferences in Division III. Every team is extremely competitive and skilled at the sport. I’m glad I don’t have to make any predictions for the standings because it’s getting harder and harder to pick one team over another.

The seventh stop on the tour took me to St. Thomas. The Tommies have consistently finished at the top of the MIAC standings for the past ten years. They are also the team everybody wants to play and beat. According to their overall record for the past 10 years, St. Thomas is the top team in the MIAC and naturally the team everyone wants to take down. This year they face the challenge of turnover after losing six seniors to graduation. That doesn’t mean anyone should underestimate Thanh Pham’s 2015 squad. In fact, I don't think it would come as a shock to anyone if they won the conference for the 11th year in a row.

Here are my six observations from my trip to the University of St. Thomas:

  1. Practice to Win- The Tommies don’t just practice to get better at skills and fundamentals. They practice to win. Every pass, set, hit, and serve is analyzed by Coach Pham and his staff as to whether or not it would have been effective in a game. More often than not, a play is deemed too easy for the opposing team. The players are not just learning how to be good at the skills of volleyball. They are learning how to win and close out games
  2. Max Effort Every Point- On that note, St. Thomas gives the maximum amount of effort on
    Setter Kayla Walton serves during practice at St. Thomas.
    every point they play, in scrimmages and practices. The players put their full energy behind everything they do, including dynamic stretches. They are determined to do their best and be their best in every moment of every drill. Plus, they never seem tired. The players have the energy and stamina to practice and perform at a high level for hours.
  3. Challenged at Every Point- The players on the St. Thomas team are constantly being challenged, not only by their coaches, but by their own teammates as well. Coaches are constantly analyzing performances and pushing the players to do better every time the ball is in their hands (or on their forearms for that matter). Players are also challenging each other to elevate their game to the next level. This causes a competitive atmosphere in gym, but it’s extremely constructive in the athletes' development.  
  4. Practice with Purpose- Yes, there is a purpose to every practice. Sometimes they are
    Senior right side Kelly Biermann waits in serve receive
    during practice. Biermann is the only player who was on
    the St. Thomas team that won the national championship
    in 2012.
    meant to focus on fundamentals, while other times they focus on the more abstract concepts of volleyball. At St. Thomas, the players practice with purpose. Each player has a drive or reason for being in that gym, as if they're on a mission. What stands out, though, is that despite all the different personal reasons for playing volleyball, the Tommies as a team are driven by a few common goals. They want to win and prove they are the best team in the MIAC. They practice as though that is their soul purpose in life, and it shows in their play.
  5. Volleyball Sponges- The St. Thomas players are constantly soaking up information from their head coach and his assistants. Coach Pham is always watching his players and will stop play if he sees something being done incorrectly. Sometimes he wants to give the setters and hitters extra practice to get the timing down on certain plays. Other times, he’s making sure a player is using the right technique to avoid injury. Whatever the case, Coach Pham is always teaching his players, and they are constantly learning new things from him. Plus, the Tommies are incredibly observant during play and pick up on the nuances of their opponent. 
  6. Offensive Power- Despite losing several of their top hitters, St. Thomas should still be one
    Head Coach Thanh Pham talks to a player in between drills.
    Pham is entering his 13th season as the Tommies head coach.
    of the top offensive teams in the conference this season. They have two setters who both have high volleyball IQs and hitters who hit with velocity and purpose. They know what it takes to win points and matches. More importantly, the Tommies don’t sit back and wait for their chance to put the offense in play. Their offense starts the minute the toss for the serve is in the air. Serving is as also as much a part of their offense as hitting. St. Thomas has some of the toughest and most aggressive and challenging serves in the conference.

Thanks to Coach Pham and the entire program for letting me take in a volleyball practice. St. Thomas will open their season on the road at the Wittenberg National Tournament (Sept. 4-5). Their home and MIAC conference opener is on September 16, when they host the Saint Ben’s Blazers. If that first game is any indication, it’s going to be a competitive year in the MIAC!

Where to next?
On August 27th, I’ll be heading to Gustavus to see the Gusties in action! Make sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from Gustavus. Also, make sure to check out Matt’s Football Camp Tour to read even more about your favorite MIAC programs!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- Saint Benedict

By Kelsey Whaley
Six schools in six days! It’s been a crazy, fun first few days on the Volleyball Camp Tour. I’ve seen scrimmages, practices, warm ups, and, knock on wood, no injuries. I hoped to keep that streak alive when I stopped in to see a morning practice at the College of Saint Benedict.

Saint Ben’s finished third in the MIAC last season but lost seven seniors to graduation in the spring. They have a new line up with new faces on the court, but that won’t deter them from continuing their streak as a tough opponent and top competitor in the MIAC. They may end up taking a tiny step back, tiny being the key word, but they are still a team opponents won’t be able to overlook.

There are six reasons why Saint Ben’s will still be a formidable force in the conference. They also happen to be my six observations from my day at Saint Ben’s practice:

  1. The head coach- The Blazers are lead by Nicole Hess, who is entering her sixth year as the head coach at Saint Ben’s. Coach Hess is very clear about what she wants out of the players in her program and the image she wants for Saint Ben’s volleyball. While she wants her
    Saint Ben's head coach Nicole Hess talks to players after
    practice on August 26. 
    players to have fun and enjoy the game, she also holds them to a high standard. She does not permit laziness or excuses on her court and the players have to earn their playing time. This type of leadership is good for a team made up of 11 underclassmen and 5 upperclassmen. It gives the players a strong sense of structure, and they know almost immediately what they are in for. Still, even with all those expectations, Coach Hess is able to facilitate a fun environment amongst players.
  2. Youths- If the 11-5 ratio wasn’t an indicator, the Blazers are a very young team. They have eight incoming freshman who all have a chance to see time on the court. These freshmen won’t sit out a year and learn the nuances of the program. They will be implanted in the starting lineups as well as the offensive and defensive scheme. Of course, they will go through growing pains, but this young core of volleyball players will make Saint Ben’s very very good in just a few short years.
  3. Sleepers- Because of their youth, other teams in the conference might think the Blazers have come down to earth for the 2015 season. However, Saint Ben’s is still a threat to take
    Sophomore setter Megan Pekarek makes a set during practice.
    Pekarek is new to Saint Ben's after spending her 2014 season
    with UW-Parkside. 
    the conference. Only time will tell if this holds true, but this team could very easily sneak in through the back door and surprise people during matches. They were picked to finish fourth in the conference, but it would be no surprise if they finished higher.
  4. Well Rounded- Saint Ben’s is very well rounded as a team. As I said earlier, they graduated seven seniors, including their libero, setter, middle blockers, and right side hitter. Coach Hess was able to bring in eight freshman and a transfer sophomore, a total to nine first year players for the Blazers. These new players can fill a variety of positions. Combined with the returners, Saint Ben’s has four defensive specialists, two setters, and a boatload of a hitters, all competing for a chance to play.
  5. Always moving- The Saint Ben’s players are constantly in motion, and only stop during team huddles. Even then they seem to be moving in some type of way. They never take a break
    Two defensive specialists wait for a serve during a drill.
    during drills. Their focus is 100% on volleyball, and if it’s not, Coach Hess calls them out on it. There is no room for the players to be distracted. For that reason, they are constantly moving from one drill to the next and constantly working to improve as a team.
  6. Strength of Schedule- The Blazers have one of the toughest schedules this season. They open against Northwestern, who received votes for the preseason rankings, before heading to Boston for a weekend tournament. Also, their conference opener is an away game against… St. Thomas. Saint Ben’s will know right away if they will be able to compete against not only the top teams in the conference, but in the nation as well.

There is a list worthy of the Oscars of people I need to thank for this trip. As always, thank you to Coach Hess and all the players of Saint Ben’s for letting me invade and sit in on their practice. Also, thank you to Saint Ben’s Sports Information Director Leah Rado for introducing me to the staff and showing me the ropes in the gym.

Saint Ben’s will open at home on September 17th against Northwestern (St. Paul).

Where to next?
Up next, I take a trip to St. Thomas, another team who is in a rebuilding year after 2014. The Tommies also lost several significant players to graduation and are looking to restock and reload for the 2015 season. From there, it's on to Gustavus for a look at one of their preseason practices.

Make sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from both St. Thomas and Gustavus. Also, make sure to check out Matt’s Football Camp Tour to read even more about your favorite MIAC programs!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- St. Kate's

By: Kelsey Whaley

As I mentioned earlier, I was able to see two teams while at Macalester. After taking in the games between Augsburg and UW-Stout, I returned to the main gym to watch St. Kate’s and Macalester square off against each other, making St. Kate’s my fifth stop on the Volleyball Camp Tour.

While every other team in the MIAC started practice last week, St. Kate’s only started on Saturday. That meant they only had four practices under their belt before hitting the court. That’s kind of like jumping into the lake before the ice is totally melted. Still, the Wildcats handled their opponents well and were more focused on coming together as a team than on whether or not they won during the day.

Here are my six observations from St. Kate’s scrimmages at Macalester:

  1. Three Sets Up- The Wildcats have three setters on their team that could all see playing
    St. Kate's junior setter Maria Davis makes a set during the
    scrimmage against Macalester.
    time. The three are lead by junior Maria Davis, who is the only returning player at that position. Two setters graduated from St. Kate’s last year, but Davis seemed up to the challenge of taking over in the scrimmages. In addition, head coach Corey Phelps and his staff were able to recruit two new setters for the year. All three of them have a chance to get significant playing time at the position.
  2. Strong Serve Receive- St. Kate’s has a trio of passers who are very strong in serve receive. Each of them made several clean passes that allowed the setter to put the offense in motion. Serve receive is not always a strength among teams, and several would prefer to be serving rather than served at. The Wildcats, though, have a core group of passers that are fully capable of making a good pass every time they are in that position.
  3. Tough Servers- Remember how I said some teams would rather be serving than
    St. Kate's players celebrate after scoring against
    served at? While St. Kate’s is a strong team on serve receive, they are also strong behind the service line. Their servers challenge opponents to make the same passes they do off tough serves. While they may have been a little rusty, the players were still trying to make challenging serves and hit seams between passers.
  4. Good Out of System- Even great passers have bad days, but if they’re on a team who can still run an offense out of system, their bad days don’t always seem so bad. The St. Kate’s passers are strong in serve receive, but like all teams, sometimes they misread a serve or make a bad pass. The Wildcats’ setters can still run the offense even when the initial pass isn’t perfect. Plus, their hitters are highly adaptable and can adjust to their set on the fly.
  5. Clean Hitters- The Wildcat hitters are extremely clean when they make contact with the ball. Their arm swings are high and produce a significant amount of topspin. This topspin
    Head Coach Corey Phelps talks to his team during a time out
    causes the ball to move, which should make it hard for the opponent’s defense to make reads. Once they work some kinks out, St. Kate’s has the potential to have a really powerful, clean, fast paced offense, especially with the setters and hitters they have at their disposal.
  6. All In- The Wildcats give it their all every point they play. As I mentioned earlier, they were only four days into practice when I saw them at Macalester, but they were already coming together and working as a team to win each and every point. Technically they may not have been as sound as other teams, but they were starting to gel as individuals. The players were working together and communicating before and after every play. As they get used to the system and practice more, that cohesiveness should show through in their skills.

Thanks to Coach Phelps and his staff for letting me include them in this years volleyball tour! St. Kate’s will open their season on the road at the University Minnesota-Morris tournament Labor Day weekend. Their first home game will be on September 23rd against St. Thomas.

Where to Next?

Up next, I head to the College of Saint Benedict to check out the Blazers. They were one of the top teams in the MIAC in 2014 and want to stay that way in 2015. The question, though, is whether or not they will be able to overcome losing five seniors. Make sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from Saint Ben's. Also, make sure to check out Matt’s Football Camp Tour to read even more about your favorite MIAC programs!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- Augsburg

I was back in familiar territory for stop four of the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour. Macalester College, stop one, was hosting a full day of preseason volleyball, featuring two MIAC teams in addition to themselves: the Augsburg Auggies and the Wildcats of St. Catherine University.

I stopped in for Augsburg's first scrimmage of the day against UW-Stout. The match didn’t count toward the regular season record, but it gave a lot of people a glimpse of the potential this team has. Augsburg finished last season with a record of 10-1, good for a tie at first place in the MIAC standings. Despite having the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, the Auggies lost in the championship game to St. Thomas. Augsburg is ready to dethrone the MIAC Conference Champions this season, but before they can do that, they have to get through the preseason first. 

Here are my six take aways from Augsburg College's play day at Macalester:

  1. Fearless- When the Auggies take the court, it's almost like a dramatic scene in a movie. They have a total sense of fearlessness about them worthy of the Dark Knight. They are not
    First year libero Macey Terhell celebrates after the Auggies
    score in their scrimmage against Bethel. 
    going into games scared or intimidated by the target on their backs. Augsburg was ranked No. 20 in Division III preseason poll, and the players and coaches know what kind of pressure that ranking brings. Every opponent they face is going to give their best, and the Auggies are not afraid in the least bit. Their fearlessness shows in their play and elation with each point they win. They love to win, and it will be tough to beat them with that fearless mentality.
  2. Ready for the Spotlight- As I said earlier, Augsburg knows they have a target on their back going into the 2015 season. Being ranked in the Top 25 in the country can serve as a double edged sword. While it can boost and give a team confidence, it serves as a beacon to everyone else in the MIAC. Other teams are gunning for them, but the Auggies will be waiting. They are fully ready for their close up and to stand atop the conference all by themselves.
  3. Athletic- This Augsburg team is extremely athletic, both physically and mentally. Physically,
    Deedee Maier serves against UW-Stout in Augsburg first
    game at Macalester
    they will be able to stand with any team late in rallies and matches. Long points shouldn’t wear them down, and they should still have plenty of energy if a fifth set is needed. Of course, this is all if everyone stays healthy and uninjured, but Augsburg’s team is incredibly athletic regardless. Mentally, they are in pretty good shape as well. These players and coaches think, live, and breath volleyball and are constantly thinking and looking for the best way to win points during play.
  4. Active and Attentive- This goes hand in hand with being a mentally sound team. The Auggie players never take a break during play. Sometimes, players will catch their breath and mentally check out when the ball in on the other side of the net. This never happened for the Augsburg players during their scrimmages. They were extremely active on the court, even when the ball wasn’t in their possession. The defensive specialists and liberos were always on edge and watching, as were the blockers and setter.
  5. Calm and collected- The Auggies never panic. Head coach Jane Becker facilitates a calm environment. Even when opponents go on a scoring run, Coach Becker remains calm and collected on the bench, a trait that has no doubt rubbed off on her players. When they get stuck in a bad rotation on serve receive, they just stick to their normal routines and try to find a way out without
    Augsburg players regroup after dropping a point against
    getting panicky. There’s no yelling or screaming, and players are not singled out for their mistakes. Instead, teammates turn towards each other rather than away to get out of sticky situations.
  6. Short-Term Memory- From the play on the court, the Augsburg players seem to all have very short memories. They simply forget bad plays and/or mistakes the minute after they happen (at least during the game). Sometimes, players can get bogged down if they spend play after play worrying about a mistake they made in the first set. It may cause them to overcompensate or continue struggling all together. Augsburg doesn’t seem to be bothered by this. When one point ends, the next one begins, and there’s nothing they can do to fix the last point. End of story, goodbye, the end.

Thanks to Coach Becker and the players for talking to me after the first scrimmage. Augsburg also played against Bethel, another top team in the conference. According to the MIAC coaches preseason poll, Augsburg and Bethel will finish 1-2 in the conference, with Bethel taking the top spot. The two teams split their games at Mac, indicating the matches between those two will be ones to watch!

Where to next?
There were two other MIAC teams who took the court at the Macalester scrimmages: Macalester and St. Kate’s. The Wildcats are stop number 6 on our preseason tour, so stay tuned for blog and video from their play day as well! Then, on August 26, it's on to Collegeville to visit Saint Benedict. Make sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from Saint Ben's. Also, make sure to check out Matt’s Football Camp Tour to read even more about your favorite MIAC programs!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- Bethel

By: Kelsey Whaley

Stop 3 of the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour brought me back to St. Paul. I had a chance to take in a practice at Bethel University, where the Royals are gearing up for the 2015 season.

After finishing with a record of 7-4 in 2014, tied for 4th in the conference, this could be the year Bethel overtakes the top spot in the standings. They’ve returned all their starters from last season, and their height in the middle gives them plenty of options on offense (more on that in a bit). They are also led by Gretchen Hunt, who is entering her 15th year as Bethel’s head coach.

As always, thanks to Coach Hunt and the players for letting me sit in on practice. Also, thanks to Alisha for talking to me and listening to me ramble, and the kind employee who pointed me in the right direction when I was looking for the gymnasium.

Now that the Academy Award worthy thank yous are done, here are my six observations about the Bethel University Royals Volleyball Team.

  1. They’re back and better than ever- Every year, athletic teams have to deal with losing starters and key players on their roster. Bethel is one of the teams that doesn’t have to deal with that challenge this volleyball season. The Royals return all their starters from the 2014 season, which gives them and Coach Hunt several advantages. For starters (pun intended), the players are already familiar and comfortable with both the systems and teammates surrounding them. More importantly, though, Coach Hunt doesn’t have to spend too much time teaching the fundamentals to her players and can instead focus on the nitty-gritty details of the defensive and offensive schemes.
  2. They’re still young- Even though Bethel will be led by nine upperclassmen, a lot of their
    Bethel DS Jillian Krier makes a pass during practice
    key players are still sophomores and juniors. Only four of the upperclassmen are seniors. While losing them will hurt the Royals, several of their players will be around for a very long time, including their middle blockers. They also brought in a strong class of freshman, meaning Bethel should be a top team in the MIAC for years to come.
  3. Tough “out”- In baseball, hitters that go deep in the count and force pitchers to make their pitches are known as tough outs. The Bethel volleyball team as a whole should be labeled the same way. Their defensive specialists are extremely scrappy and at least touch every ball hit in their direction. The Royals make their opponents earn their point and refuse to give them away. This can physically and emotionally take its toll on opponents. If a team is going to beat Bethel, they’ll need an arsenal of “pitches” and energy to do it.
  4. Hard Hitters- The Bethel hitters are ruthless. They hit the ball hard and rarely make errors. Last season they were one of the top 4 teams in the MIAC in hitting efficiency. To make matters worse (for opponents that is), they show no mercy on offense. Every time a hitter goes up for the ball, they are going for the kill. Trust me, it’s not exactly a pleasant feeling when one of those balls hits your forearms either.
  5. Talented Middles- The Royals middle blockers are very good. Both Tegan LaBerge and
    Bethel Middle Blocker Tegan LaBerge and Right Side Hitter
    Nicole Deberry make a block during practice
    Kristen Stern, projected starters for this season, are tall and athletic, making them the perfect offensive and defensive weapons. Like all Bethel hitters, they hit the ball hard and are smart on offense, but it's their defensive play that will cause problems for other teams. While neither of them play in the back row, they both block in the front. Because of their height and athleticism, LaBerge and Stern literally create a roadblock for opponents, once again forcing them to earn the point.
  6. They’re tall- The entire team is tall. There are only two players under 5-5, setter Katie Lubben and defensive specialist Kevyn Janicek, on the roster, but other than those two players, everyone breaks the 5-6 mark. Every Royal is above the average height for a female. This height gives them several advantages, including the few I talked about earlier.

Where to next?
On August 25, I head to Macalester College to watch two teams in a preseason scrimmage. Augsburg will be up first, as they look to prove why they were ranked No. 20 in preseason polls. Then, I’ll talk with St. Kate’s University coaches and players to discuss their preseason camp and goals for the 2015 season.

Be sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from the scrimmages. Also, make sure to check out Matt’s Football Camp Tour to read even more about your favorite MIAC programs!