The Valley City State University volleyball team finished last season on a bit of a sour note when it narrowly missed the Association of Independent Institutions conference tournament.
Although the Vikings finished sixth in the final Association of Independent Institutions conference poll, technically good enough to get to the conference tournament, they were bumped out by the host team, which gets an automatic bid.
"We were basically just nudged out, and my team remembers how that feels," VCSU coach Susan Kolbow said. "There were a couple of matches, two or three matches that we lost (in the regular season), that we had a handle on, we had control of, and we let it slip out of our fingers.
"That was the difference in us making that tournament or not making that tournament, so our returners are real hungry not to let that happen again."
The goal this year is to make the tournament, Kolbow said, and it's an effort that starts Saturday when the team hosts its first matches of the season at Graichen Gym. The Vikings play Waldorf College starting at noon and Jamestown College at 4 p.m.
The matches will start a season in which the team is blending plenty of youth with a core group of returning players from last season. The Vikings enter the season with six returning players, eight freshmen and one transfer joining the team.
Though she expects a few hiccups early in the season, Kolbow said the team has come together well in its preseason work.
"The freshman have been very responsive," she said. "There's a lot of respect on the team amongst each other and I think that helps out a ton."
Offensively, the Vikings hope to be consistent with a key group from last year.
Valley City native Jill Noeske enters her senior season coming off an All-A.I.I. performance last year. She led VCSU with 372 kills and also contributed with plenty of blocks. She'll be joined up front by junior Aurissa Martens, who had 195 kills last year.
"Those two in the front together will be a tough duo to stop, so I'm excited about that," Kolbow said.
Kolbow also expects sophomore Alley Theroux and freshman Rachel Hummel to find spots in the offense as hitters.
They'll be taking their passes from Anna Neufeld, who had over 1,000 assists last year.
Neufeld's role could change though, as the Vikings look to utilize both her and freshman Stephanie Miller, a freshman setter from Esko, Minn.
"The past two years we've really only had one setter, so we were running a 5-1 (rotation) all the time, leaving our setter in the front row," Kolbow said. "Now we're able to run a 6-2 and have a nice big block in the front row, three hitters all the time."
The biggest question the team has, Kolbow said, is defensively.
"We don't have a lot of returners that have a lot of serve receive experience, so I think that's going to be an area that we need to continue to improve in all year long," Kolbow said.
Emily Plowman, a freshman defensive specialist from Simi Valley, Calif, is among the players that could fill defensive roles.
"She's looking to fight for that libero spot, so a freshman in the libero spot will be interesting all year, but she does a nice job," Kolbow said about Plowman. "She's got a great platform back there and plays very good defense. She's been exciting to watch in practice."
Kolbow is excited for the team's first matches.
Against Waldorf, she hopes her team can avoid first match butterflies and take care of the ball.
She said rival Jamestown is "quite the test for our first day of competition."
The Jimmies return numerous key players from last season, when they narrowly missed qualifying for the national tournament, including All-American honorable mention Sarah Becker.
"Jamestown is a big, physical team," Kolbow said. "Traditionally, they've always been a big blocking team. They're very aggressive at the net, they're not going to give you anything for free. If they tip the ball at you, it's going to be a hard, aggressive tip."
Kolbow hopes her players can remember last season, when the Vikings upset the Jimmies 3-2 in a home match early in the season."
Regardless of the outcome, the ultimate goal is to make it to the A.I.I. tournament, which is being hosted by Mayville State University.
"The consensus as a team is that we're making it to the A.I.I. tournament," "That is our number one goal, and improving every day is how we're going to get there.