The NJCAA recently released the 2017 Division III Volleyball Preseason poll and the Minnesota College Athletic Conference dominated the national field with five MCAC teams garnering national recognition. The full NJCAA poll is available at this link.
Ridgewater College, which advanced to the National Championship match a year ago, came in as the top MCAC team landing in the #2 spot. Coach Joe Sussenguth and his squad will have both their 2016 national tournament experience and a strong incoming recruiting class to lean on in the coming weeks, as the 2017 campaign kicks off. Ridgewater almost ran the table in the MCAC South last season, going 13-1 in Divisional play. The Warriors only dropped six matches over the entire 2016 season and are poised to make another run at a National Championship in 2017. Ridgewater has four national titles (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2011) on its resume, with room for another in 2017.
Central Lakes College also caught the eye of the national committee, earning a #4 ranking at the start of the 2017 season. Central Lakes won the highly competitive MCAC Northern Division title in 2016 with a 13-1 record. Overall, the Raiders went 22-13 and finished 4th at the NJCAA National Tournament held in Rochester, Minnesota. Jane Peterson and her 2017 team will be looking to punch a ticket again to the Med City for a shot at the national title, but will have to navigate a strong MCAC North field to do so. Having appeared in eleven NJCAA National Tournaments, CLC knows what it takes to win at the highest level in NJCAA Division III volleyball.
With many eyes on the first five of the national rankings, Minnesota State Fergus Falls quietly took up residence in the top ten at the 7th spot in the poll, making the MCAC the only NJCAA Division III conference in the county with three top 10 selections. Head coach Abby Crowser, who took over the M-State program in 2015, will need to guide her squad through the MCAC Southern Division and find a way past Ridgewater to make 2017 their year for a national championship opportunity. While challenges abound in the 2017 MCAC campaign, it is likely that September 6th is circled on the Spartans calendar, as they will take on Ridgewater in an early season clash on that date. The two teams will tangle again on Wednesday, September 27th in the return leg of the series. Coming off of a 27-4 run last season - with Coach-of-the-Year honors earned by Crowser - the Spartans have significant optimism heading into 2017.
St. Cloud Technical and Community College with coach Heidi Smith running the show, turned in a solid 8-6 Divisional record in 2016, and was even better in non-conference play at 18-11 overall. If the Cyclones can get off to a strong start in 2017, the MCAC South could evolve into an interesting race for the top seeds in the Region XIIIA tournament in October. SCTCC was undefeated in the MCAC Crossover Tournament last year, showing it can make a run in tournament settings. The other X-factor in the Southern Division will likely be Rochester Technical and Community College. The Yellowjackets suffered a late-season skid in 2016 which dropped them to 15-17 overall, but RCTC was 10-4 in Southern Division play. If RCTC can put together a breakout season, they could find themselves competing on their home court in the NJCAA National Tournament at RCTC on November 10-11. Coach Amber Zitzow will take her team to a pair of high-level September tournaments at the Wisconsin Dells and suburban Chicago to prepare for league play.
The rest of the MCAC Southern Division will look to topple Ridgewater and M-State as the season progresses. Anoka-Ramsey Community College is under new direction, with former NCAA Division I standout and long-time high school coach Sarah Herlofsky taking the reigns in Coon Rapids. Riverland Community College also has a 'new' coach, but a familiar face, in Helen Jahr. Coach Jahr was also tapped to serve as the women's athletic director at RCC, and with over 18 years of coaching experience in the MCAC, is eager to return to the court. Western Technical College is looking to rebound from the 2016 season and has some good early season tests with matches at a tournament in Iowa and against Milwaukee Area Technical, before taking on the heart of their MCAC slate. Coach Jenny Watson had WTC playing .500 ball through the end of September in 2016, and hopes to extend that level of play this year through the entire season. Minnesota West Community and Technical College - with a pair of MCAC South victories in 2016 - will be focusing on collective improvement to move up the ladder in Minnesota College Athletic Conference play. Head coach Marie Johnson, a former LadyJay herself, heads into her fifth season in Worthington.
Itasca Community College earned a 17-14 overall record and a 10-4 MCAC Northern Division finish in 2016. The NJCAA noted the strong season, as the Viking volleyball program is receiving votes in the national poll to begin 2017. ICC and head coach Leslie Reed will see some early-season tests with matches against Gogebic (MI) CC, Bismark State College and Dakota County Technical College, a trio of NJCAA Division II programs. Itasca will face off against MCAC Northern Division favorite Central Lakes on Wednesday, September 20th and again on Wednesday, October 11th. Success in those matches, coupled with a strong start to the season, could see ICC move up the rankings as the season unfolds.
Veteran coach Mel Millerbernd and her team at Rainy River Community College is also receiving votes in the national preseason rankings. Millerbernd and the Voyager volleyball team went 21-12 in 2016 and the 2017 schedule shows they will use some early season tournament play to find the right mix on the court. RRCC only lost 1 match at home in International Falls with 10 victories on their own court. Like ICC, Rainy River will also test themselves against some NJCAA Division II competition, taking on Gogebic and DCTC during the fall. Rainy River went 11-3 in MCAC Northern Division play in 2016 and looks to eclipse that ledger this season.
With three teams currently in the national rankings, two other Northern Division teams, Mesabi Range College and Hibbing Community College, are looking to both stay above the rest of the Northern Division and also solve the puzzle poised by CLC, Itasca and Rainy River. Jojo Scott's MRC team, with a 15-15 record in 2016 could be the sleeper pick in the North, as they return a solid core and have a '17 recruiting class that could impact right away. Sara Matuszak looks to lead the Hibbing team to the next level this year by building on a .500 record (16-16 overall) last season. Mesabi and HCC will first see each other in league play on September 20th, at Hibbing.
Northland Community and Technical College, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and Vermilion Community College will round out a strong field in the MCAC Northern Division. As recently as three seasons ago, NCTC was a force at the Regional and National levels, knocking out a strong run between 2011-2013, a streak which included two National Tournament and three Region XIIIB Tournament appearances.
Both VCC and FDL are working towards bounce-back seasons in 2017; Vermilion takes the court under a new coach, Krystal Brodeen, while Laura Sylvester enters her 7th season for the Fond du Lac Thunder, where she also serves as the Athletic Director and women's basketball coach.
To start the 2017 season, Minnesota College Athletic Conference volleyball team comprise one-third of the top 15 programs in the country. As most coaches tell their players, however, it is where you finish that really counts and MCAC programs will continue their preseason work before heading to early season scrimmages and tournaments next week.
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Story courtesy of MCAC Sports