2015 MIAC FB Tour - St. Thomas

By Matt Higgins, MIAC

Hi again everyone. Sorry for the delay, but the 2015 MIAC Football Camp Tour is back on track. I finished off my trip around the league last week with visits to St. Thomas, Hamline, Saint John's and Concordia. However, the blogs and videos have fallen behind a bit due to the release of all our fall Previews & Preseason Coaches' Polls, as well as my long day in Collegeville and Moorhead, and a quick mini-vacation to Chicago from Thursday-to-Sunday to enjoy a little last-minute downtime before the craziness of the fall season.

But now we're back on track and we'll finish off the tour with a blog and video from each of the final four stops this week as the excitement builds toward kickoff on Thursday night. Also, look for our first Weekly Football Preview of the year on Thursday, and the return of our Athlete-of-the-Week awards and our popular Play-of-the-Week feature early next week.

Last Monday marked the sixth stop on the tour as I spent a great afternoon on the St. Thomas campus with Head Coach Glenn Caruso and the Tommies. Each time I visit a UST practice I'm ready to throw on a pair of shoulder pads and jump into the next drill because the practices are super high-energy, and super fun. It's just a great vibe, and last week's stop was no exception.

My top four observations from last Monday's practice are below in "Four Downs" and be sure to check out our updated photo gallery with some images from St. Thomas' practice, as well as a video with highlights and interviews with Caruso, Senior CB Mozus Ikuenobe and Senior TE Charlie Dowdle.

St. Thomas had a high-intensity practice
during the MIAC Camp Tour on Aug. 24.
FIRST DOWN - Culture & Atmosphere
As I mentioned in my lead-in, the first thing that jumps out to anyone attending a practice at St. Thomas is the energy and the tempo. It's a fun atmosphere to be around, and last Monday's high-paced practice revealed a team that is both excited for the upcoming season, but also extremely focused on the details (more on that in a minute). Caruso has created a culture that permeates the entire team, and it comes across in each interaction with his players. After practice, Ikuenobe mentioned several times the "essence of football," which is 11 guys all doing their job and working together as one unit. This philosophy is evident in the team's approach and preparation.

SECOND DOWN - Super-sized spring
During just week two of camp, St. Thomas certainly looked well ahead of schedule in terms of the finely-tuned details on offense, defense and special teams, and there's an easy answer for that beyond the number of returning starters. The team enjoyed its NCAA-allowed foreign tour, which lets teams travel and compete abroad to enhance student-athletes' experiences. Additional practice time comes with the tour exception, and the additional off-season work shows. The team spent 13 days in late May and early June in Italy, culminating with a June 6 game against Giaguari Torino. Caruso reminded me that their first foreign tour in 2009 resulted in a Playoff bid and run to the third round, and when they did it again in 2012 they reached the national championship game, so the additional off-season work and time for team bonding could have UST in position for big dividends yet again in 2015. The team was certainly sharp last Monday, and was particularly impressive and effective during several situational drills as they prepared for game situations.

The St. Thomas ground game could be among
the MIAC's best again in 2015.
THIRD DOWN - Offensive expectations
The sky appears to be the limit for this UST offense, after averaging a MIAC-best 44.4 points and 493.7 yards per game in 2014. John Gould eventually took the reins at QB and the senior returns after completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,425 yards and 16 TDs (vs. just six INTs). Dowdle is back at TE after leading the Tommies with a Gronkowski-like 49 catches, 704 yards and 13 TDs in the passing game, and both Jack Kaiser (654 rushing yards, 7 TDs) and Nick Waldvogel (496 rushing, 344 receiving, 13 total TDs) also return, along with a lot of talent on a big, physical offensive line. To top it off, RB Jordan Roberts transferred in from Division I South Dakota where he had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards over his first two seasons of college football. With Kaiser, Waldvogel and Roberts leading an unbelievable stable of backs and another strong St. Thomas defense on the other side of the ball, a usually-balanced offense could possibly tilt more toward the run in 2015.

FOURTH DOWN - Dial up the 'D'
During its recent run of success, the Tommies have typically been dominant on defense. They were very good in 2014, but hope for improvement back to that elite level in 2015. UST was third in the MIAC in points allowed (22.3 per game) and yards allowed (333.3 per game). The team picked off just eight passes, but was second in the MIAC in both sacks (21) and fumble recoveries (12). Ikuenobe is the lone All-MIAC selection in 2014 that returns this year for St. Thomas, as he was named a First Team CB a year ago. The Tommies graduated three other First Teamers and one Second Team selection, so there will be some holes to fill in 2015. However, junior DB Bennett Celichowski (44 tackles, three fumble recoveries) joins Ikuenobe in the secondary and senior Tim McClanahan (62 tackles, three sacks), and junior Jesse Addo (26 tackles, 5.5 TFL, two forced fumbles) are back to help UST re-load. The best recent St. Thomas defenses have been so balanced that there were rarely any statistical standouts, so if the team can work on more three-and-outs and Ikuenobe's well-described "essence of football" it should compliment a high-powered offense nicely for one of the MIAC's top title contenders.

The MIAC Football Camp Tour has hit each of the nine schools, and this week we'll be catching up with recaps from the final stops. Look for a report from Hamline camp tomorrow, followed by Saint John's on Wednesday and Concordia Thursday. The full camp tour schedule is listed below with my date I visited each school.

Tuesday, Aug. 18 -Gustavus - St. Peter, Minn.
Wednesday, Aug. 19 - Bethel - Arden Hills, Minn.
Thursday, Aug. 20 - Augsburg - Minneapolis, Minn.
Friday, Aug. 21 - St. Olaf and Carleton - Northfield, Minn.
 Monday, Aug. 24 - St. Thomas - St. Paul, Minn.
Tuesday, Aug. 25 - Hamline - St. Paul, Minn.
Wednesday, Aug. 26-  Saint John's and Concordia - Collegeville and Moorhead, Minn.

Follow along with the tour on social media, as I'll be posting on FacebookTwitter and Instagram at each stop, and we'll be using the hashtag #MIACcamptour for both our football and volleyball treks around the MIAC. Kelsey has been crushing it on the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour as well, and you can follow her progress on the blog or the Volleyball Camp Tour home page.

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- St. Olaf

By Kelsey Whaley
Well, we've arrived at the last stop of the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour. It’s been an incredibly fun ride for me. I’ve had the chance to sit in and watch 11 of the 12 volleyball programs either practice or scrimmage during the preseason. Knock on wood, I made it through each one without witnessing a horrendous injury (or any injury at all for that matter).

The final stop on the camp tour was St. Olaf. The Oles were the host of the preseason scrimmage, so I had plenty of opportunities to see them in action. I didn’t even have to move courts after watching Hamline and St. Thomas. St. Olaf played Gustavus on court two right after Hamline’s scrimmage ended.

The coaching scenario at St. Olaf is a little different this season. For the past 22 years, Cindy Book has served as the Oles head coach. This fall, however, Coach Book is going on sabbatical. St. Olaf fans will still see a familiar face on the court. Walt Weaver, an assistant with the program the past few years, will serve as the interim head coach and will be assisted by Reid Vernon.

St. Olaf is looking to bounce back after two subpar seasons. The Oles have only won 3 games in the MIAC the past two season after finishing with a 7-4 conference record in 2012. While turnover and graduation did play a role in that, the seniors on the team especially want to get back to the winning tradition the program is used to.

That being said, here are my six observations from watching St. Olaf in their preseason scrimmage:

  1. Coaching Situation- As I mentioned earlier, the coaching situation is unique at St. Olaf this season.
    Interim head coach Walt Weaver talks to the St. Olaf players
    before their scrimmage against Gustavus. Weaver was
    highly successful as a high school coach before becoming
    an assistant at St. Olaf. 
    With Coach Book going on sabbatical, the Oles promoted assistant coach Walt Weaver as the interim head coach. However, this isn’t Coach Weaver’s first rodeo at the helm. He has a long history with the sport of volleyball prior to his assistant coaching days at St. Olaf. He coached high school volleyball for a total of 33 seasons, 31 at Apple Valley and two at Lakeville North. In that time, he won three state championships, made the state tournament 14 times, won the school’s conference title 18 times, and won over 700 games. Weaver currently owns and directs the Midwest Volleyball Instructors Camps and Clinics with his wife and hosts a national clinic for coaches and players on the St. Olaf campus. In other words, Walt Weaver knows volleyball and is very familiar with the St. Olaf campus and traditions.
  2. Belief in Tradition- The St. Olaf players believe in the winning tradition and history of their volleyball program. The Oles are only 5 years removed from taking a share of the conference title (they tied for first with St. Thomas in 2010) and winning the MIAC’s playoff championship (also in 2010). However, since then, the team has had some up and down seasons. They finished with a 4-7 record in 2011 before doing a full 360 to finish 7-4 in 2012. Since then, though, St. Olaf has finished the regular season with records of 1-10 and 2-9. Their players want to get back to championship form and return as one of the top teams in the MIAC conference.
  3. Leadership at Setter- The Oles are lead by senior setter Kersten Bork. In her first three
    Senior setter Kersten Bork prepares to make a set during
    pregame warm ups.
    seasons at St. Olaf, Bork led the team in assists and finished in the top half of all MIAC setters each season. Her freshman year, she finished second in the conference with 1,150 assists while playing in every set of every match on the St. Olaf schedule. She knows what it takes to win both in the MIAC and Division III. She is the clear leader on the team, and if given the right assets, is fully capable of commanding St. Olaf’s offense.
  4. Move without the Ball- The players at St. Olaf move without the ball very well. It’s easy for players to take a break and mentally check out if they aren’t involved in the play. However, this never seems to happen with the Oles. Every player is carefully watching the ball on both sides of the net. Defensive players move and make reads when the ball in on the other side of the court while the hitters come in for coverage when the ball isn’t set their way.
  5. Waiting on Defense- Movement without the ball brings about good defensive coverage. As long as the St. Olaf players continue watching the ball, they will continue being in the right
    Junior libero Abby Slack dives for a ball during
     the preseason scrimmage
    positions on defense. Their blockers are rarely fooled by opposing setters, and their defensive specialists always seem to be sitting and waiting for the ball. The team is also extremely quick, which makes the transition from offense to defense easy.
  6. Fill the Stands- Even though it was only a scrimmage, the St. Olaf students came out to support their team in a big way. They all sat on the edge of the stage and cheered their friends and classmates on in their scrimmage against Gustavus. This indicates that there will be quite the fan turnout during the regular season. What was really cool to see was that most of the fans who turned out to support the Oles were students themselves. The volleyball team will always have the fans on their side at home, which will make games in the Skoglund Center fun and exciting.

As always, thank you to Coach Weaver and Coach Vernon for letting me come to the scrimmage and talk with them during the break. Thanks to the players as well. St. Olaf will open play on September 1 when they host Crown College and Martin Luther in two nonconference games. They host Augsburg at home to open their conference season.

Where to Next?
Sadly, St. Olaf ends the 2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour. Up next, though, is the regular season. If this camp tour isn’t an indicator, it’s going to be an extremely fun and competitive season. With so many quality teams, the MIAC is once again going to be one of the best volleyball conferences in the nation. No one is a shoe in to win the conference title, and it’s going to be a lot of fun watching the top teams duke it out.

Make sure to continue checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram throughout the year to stay up to date with all the latest MIAC volleyball action! I'll be going to at least one home game for every school and will post photos, videos, and updates on social media during games!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- Hamline

By Kelsey Whaley

I didn’t have to move very far for stop number 10 on the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour. After watching Carleton on court one, I took a quick lunch break and then moved to court two to watch Hamline take on St. Thomas.

Hamline, like Carleton, finished tied for fifth in MIAC standings last season. Also like Carleton, they missed the playoffs because of their head-to-head records against other teams in the conference. The Pipers want to improve and exceed expectations in the 2015 season, something which I believe they can accomplish. Based on their team intangibles and skill set, the Pipers will not be an easy team to beat in conference play. They will give opponents a run for their money.

Here are my six observations from watching the Hamline University Pipers in Northfield:

  1. Defensively Scrappy- The Pipers are extremely crafty on defense and touch almost every ball that comes their way. Their mentality is that the play isn’t over until the whistle blows. If the volleyball is live and in play, a Hamline defender will get a touch on it. Somehow, some way, the Pipers are able to keep the ball alive, which gives them a chance in every game they play.
    Hamline defenders wait in serve receive position
    during their scrimmage against St. Thomas.
  2. Hit the Floor- This goes hand in hand with being scrappy. Not every ball is hit directly at a defender, no matter how good a team’s defense is. Every now and again, a defender may make a wrong read or the hitter may just see an opening and seize the opportunity. Hamline is not immune to these problems; however, they do have defenders that will stop at nothing to keep the ball off the floor. The Pipers make the maximum effort trying to save the volleyball. They'll hit the floor or run halfway across the gym to keep the ball in play.
  3. Push Others to the Limit- Because they are such a scrappy team defensively, the Pipers will push other teams to their limit. Last year, they took a set in their matches against Augsburg, St. Thomas, and Saint Mary’s, three of the top teams in the MIAC. In 2015, Hamline looks to continue this trend. They want to beat and, more importantly, challenge the teams at the top of the conference. They will not be a team opponents can roll over. In fact, they may take more than just a couple sets from top teams this year.
  4. Exceed Expectations- The Hamline volleyball team wants to exceed not just their own
    Hamline serves during their scrimmage against St. Thomas.
    The Pipers service game could cause problems
    for teams in 2015.
    expectations for the year but the rest of the conference’s as well. The Pipers are projected to finish 9th in the MIAC based on the preseason poll, but they want to finish higher than that. Essentially, if other team’s think they will finish ninth in the conference, Hamline wants to finish eighth or seventh. They want to exceed expectations in the future too, but right now, they are just focusing on being a better team than expected in 2015.
  5. No Height, No Problem- The Hamline Pipers are a bit on the shorter side of the height totem this season. They only have two players that break the 6’ mark while the rest all hover around 5’7. Some are a few inches taller and others an inch shorter. This lack of height doesn’t deter the Pipers. In fact, Hamline head coach Becky Egan uses the height to help her team rather than hinder it. She won’t create a game plan that is designed for an entire team of players over six feet. Instead, she’s built a game plan around the play of her defense and the skills of her hitters. This season, the Pipers will prove that a “short” team can have success in a highly competitive volleyball conference.
  6. Strong Coverage- Defense doesn’t start and stop when the other team is hitting the ball.
    Senior outside hitter Michelle Mattke goes after a ball
    during a preseason scrimmage at St. Olaf College.
    Defense is an ongoing process in volleyball and is just as important when a team is on offense. It’s the defenders job to make sure they are in the right place if the hitter gets blocked. With some big blocks in the MIAC, it’s extremely important for a team to have good coverage. Hamline is a team with good coverage. The Pipers are there, ready and waiting, if one of their hitters gets blocked. Even the setter follows her set and waits just in case. The Hamline players have their hitter's back each and every time they are on offense.

Special thanks to Coach Eagan and the team for talking to me, especially since it was during their lunch break. The Pipers will open play on September 1 at home against UW-River Falls and St. Scholastica. Their conference opener is at home against Saint Mary’s University on September 23.

Where to Next?
Well, it’s all coming to an end. St. Olaf, the host of the preseason tournament, is my last stop of the camp tour. The Oles are in a unique position for the year as their head coach is going on sabbatical. Walt Weaver and Reid Vernon are stepping in to help, and it will be interesting to see that dynamic play out on the court.

Be sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from their scrimmage! 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- Carleton

By Kelsey Whaley
Stops number 9, 10, and 11 were all in Northfield MN, where six teams were playing in a preseason tournament on St. Olaf’s campus. Carleton, Hamline, and the host, St. Olaf were all participating and just so happened to be the final three stops on the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour.

The Carleton College Knights kicked off the day in their 10am scrimmage against St. Thomas. Carleton tied for 5th in the MIAC last season but missed the playoffs based on head-to-head records. While they have several returners on the roster this season, the Knights lost their setter to graduation. While two setters are returning for their final season, there is still going to be a transition as the two become full time players for Carleton.

That being said, here are my six observations from Carleton College's scrimmages in Northfield:
  1. Embrace the Division III Philosophy- The Carleton players embody the DIII philosophy in every way possible. On top of being a member of a varsity athletic team, the Knights are also involved in a variety of activities off the court, such as service work and academic clubs. Many of the athletes chose to play at Carleton over other schools because of the academic opportunities the school offers in addition to athletics. Every player is involved in something other than sports, which would make the NCAA very proud.
    Carleton players come together in between sets in their
    first scrimmage against St. Thomas
  2. Driven On and Off the Court- On the court, the Knights are one of the most driven teams I’ve seen. They want to continue climbing the rankings in the conference and prove they belong in the upper echelon (more on that in a bit). They are also extremely driven off the court in their other endeavors. Not only do they embrace the Division III philosophy, the Carleton Knights volleyball program has mastered it. Their team goal is to not only be relevant on the court, but off it as well.
  3. Want to be Relevant- As aforementioned, Carleton is an extremely driven as a volleyball program. Their goals are to continue their climb up the MIAC standings. Last season they finished 5-6, good for a tie in 5th place. However, they were unable to make the playoffs because of their head-to-head matches against the other MIAC teams. However, this Carleton team has seen a significant improvement over the years, especially after going 1-10 in the 2013 season. The players and coaches want to be seen as a legitimate and relative team in the MIAC who can give top teams a run for their money.
  4. Offensive Versatility- On offense, the Knights are extremely versatile with hitters who can
    Carleton blockers call the opponents setter's location
    during a scrimmage at St. Olaf.
    play multiple positions. This is particularly true for Carleton’s outside hitters. Not only are they capable of making a difference on the left side, but they are also effective on the right as well. This is especially helpful during serve receive when hitters may be displaced from their more comfortable position. Because the outside hitters for the Knights are comfortable on the right side, the setters do not have to worry as much about where they make their sets. The hitters themselves don't have to worry quite so much about moving during serve either since they are able to play from a different area and still be an effective offensive weapon.   
  5. Experienced leadership- Carleton brings back four seniors for their 2015 season. These four seniors have experienced everything and have seen the team grow from a last place finish in the conference to a tie for fifth. As much as anyone else, these four leaders want to keep improving in the MIAC standings and want to prove they are a relevant team. These four seniors also embody both Carleton and the Division III's philosophy of what it means to be a student-athlete, meaning they younger players have four excellent role models to look up to.
    Senior defensive specialist Ashley Shin celebrates with teammates
  6. Get Excited- The Knights do not hold back whenever they win a point. They are constantly celebrating, cheering, and congratulating each other. It’s quite clear these girls love volleyball and their school. They want to represent Carleton and win as a team. That drives fuels their play and celebrations whenever they win a point.

Thanks to Coach Jaynes and the Carleton team for talking to me in between their scrimmages. The Knights open play on September 1 at the St. Olaf invitational. Then, they travel to Colorado Springs and Macalester for two tournaments before hosting Hamline to open their conference schedule.

Where to next?
Same tournament, new court. Up next: the Hamline University Pipers who hope to exceed all expectations in the 2015 season. Be sure to tune into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where I’ll be posting live from their scrimmages as well. 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- Gustavus

By Kelsey Whaley

Stop number eight took me to St. Peter, MN where I watched a practice at Gustavus. Now, when Matt Higgins visited Gustavus for the MIAC Football Camp Tour, it rained as if there was no tomorrow. When I visited Gustavus on August 27, it also started raining shortly after I arrived. At least I was inside for most of the downpour, but I'm starting to think a visit from the MIAC staff is not good for the weather in St. Peter.

Rain or shine, nothing was getting in the way of Gustavus’ practice that day. Head Coach Rachelle Sherden held a short team meeting before having her team run through their pregame routine. Coach Sherden and her team were practicing as though it was game day, so it was nice to see what the Gusties will do once they start playing in games.

Thanks to Coach Sherden for letting me sit in at practice and for explaining the team’s goals and mind set for the 2015 season. Gustavus is operating a little differently this year in terms of motivation, and it was cool to see that play out on the court.

That being said, here are the six observation I made from my practice with Gustavus:

  1. Safety in Numbers- The Gusties have one of the biggest volleyball teams in the MIAC this
    Players listen to Gustavus head coach Rachelle Sherden
    as she explains the practice plan for the day.
    season. With 20+ players who can all play a variety of positions, Coach Sherden will not find herself short in numbers. These players can all play a role on the team in some way, whether it's as a sub or starter. Plus, Coach Sherden won’t be scrambling if any of her key players get injured early or late in the season. Even the first years will be able to step in, especially since many of them are on the same playing field, both mentally and physically, as the upperclassmen.
  2. Volume- With over twenty girls on the court at once, the Gusties produce a lot of volume. In their intra-squad scrimmage on Thursday, their cheers and exclamations overpowered the music that was playing. The players are literally a force of nature when it comes to their voices. Opponents and fans will know whether or not Gustavus won the point.
  3. One Day At a Time- The mentality of the Gustavus team this year is to live in the moment. They aren’t looking ahead in the schedule or trying to prepare for games that happen in October. Instead, they are solely focused on each day as it comes. The Gusties are also more concerned about making their own team better rather than worrying about what other teams in the conference are doing. This takes a lot of anxiety out of practice situations and allows the players to focus on the team and their own game rather than a far off opponent.
  4. Groovin’- This Gustavus team has fun. They are constantly moving and grooving to just
    Returning setter Marisa Morgan warms up during practice.
    about anything, whether it be pregame music or sideline cheers. Their fun, goofy attitude also adds to the live in the moment mentality the team has adopted. They have fun in the here and now. However, they also know when to turn the switch on. As soon as the ball is in play, the Gusties are all business, turning the switch from goofy girls into competitive volleyball players. And of course, when the play is over, they let out a loud whoop! and get back in the groove.
  5. Coachable- These players are extremely coachable and soak up whatever Coach Sherden has to share with them. She has their undivided attention whenever she speaks, and the players are more than happy to learn from their leader. They want to get better as a team and as individuals, so they listen to both Coach Sherden and her assistants. Everyone is listening and learning, but the first year players are like sponges. They want to embody the image of Gustavus volleyball, and what better way to do that than to listen and learn from the upperclassman and the coach.
  6. Late Start- Gustavus doesn’t actually start playing games until Labor Day weekend, giving
    Gustavus hitters run through hitting lines before
    scrimmaging each other during practice. 
    them an extra week of practice to work out any kinks still in place. Most other MIAC schools start the regular season with non-conference games on September 1. Not the Gusties. They won’t hit the court until the Labor Day weekend tournament in Platteville, Wis. While the team is ready to take the court and compete, they also appreciate the extra time to fix any mistakes and perfect their plays.

Gustavus will be on the road throughout the beginning of September. Their home opener is against UW-Stout at 1pm on September 19. They also host and play Luther on the same day at 7pm. Their first conference game is on the road against St. Kate’s on September 26.

Where to Next?
The final day of the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour is sadly here. On the final day, Friday August 27, I’ll head to St. Olaf for a full day of scrimmages. The three teams I’ll be looking at are Carleton, St. Olaf, and Hamline. St. Thomas and Gustavus will also be at the tournament, so don’t be surprised if you see some familiar faces in video footage and photographs!

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!

2015 MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour- St. Thomas

By Kelsey Whaley
If someone told me that I would be able to watch seven quality volleyball programs 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. According to their overall record for the past 10 years, St. Thomas is the top team in the conference 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 opponents should underestimate Thanh Pham’s 2015 squad. In fact, I don't think it would come as a shock to anyone if they won or co-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 both 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 creates a competitive atmosphere in the gym, but it’s extremely constructive in the athletes' development.  
  4. Practice with Purpose-
    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.
    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 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 sets. 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!