For the young NDSU volleyball team, it was a dream to start 10-3 overall and 2-0 in the Summit League. Still, the test that came Friday from the University of Denver was going to be the measuring stick for the rest of the season.
The Pioneers came into the season as the preseason favorite to win in the Summit League. The Bison, pushed by a hyped-up crowd at Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse, were not fazed and took down the Pioneers 3-1 (26-28, 25-15, 25-23, 25-23).
The match started with a frenetic pace, going back and forth as the teams found their swings. The Bison were the first to find it. Erika Gelzinyte started a three-point run with a kill for the Bison to push the set lead to 15-11.
NDSU hit another 3-0 run, starting with McKenzie Burke slamming a kill and Emilee McGowan serving an ace.
The Bison were set to take the first, moving to set point with a scrambling defensive play that led to four hits from the Pioneers.
Denver stormed back behind a pair of kills from Kayla Principato. That sparked a 5-0 run from Denver to give the Pioneers a 25-24 lead.
NDSU would put up a fight, but an ace from Ellie Anderson gave the opening set to Denver.
Any worries that the young Bison team would crumble under the pressure of playing a talented team from behind were quickly dismissed. NDSU dominated the second set.
Back-to-back kills from Bella Lien and Burke were followed by an Allie Mauch block that shifted momentum to NDSU.
The Bison had a pair of 4-0 runs and another 3-0 run in the set. The second 4-0 run saw a pair of Mikaela Purnell aces and a Lien kill.
Lien was deadly in attack in the second. In four attacks, the freshman tallied four kills.
The second set win meant that the game would go past three sets, a situation in which the Bison have not lost.
As the third set progressed, it looked like the Bison would have to force a fifth set to maintain that record. Denver pulled out to a six-point lead at 16-10.
The gap ballooned to six in part to a series of calls that head coach Jennifer Lopez saw as against her team, as well as some close misses.
But then a turning point for the Bison happened. Burke smashed a kill into the block and out to get the Bison within 17-20. Burke turned around and celebrated with a little head shake that said, “Come on”.
NDSU went on a 3-0 run to tie the set at 20. Gelzinyte used a soft touch over the block to give the Bison set point. Mauch placed the next point in the back corner to give the Bison a 2-1 edge in the match.
The fourth set started much like the others, close. Brianna Rasmussen finished off a long rally that featured a pair of Purnell digs to make it 3-2 Bison.
An 8-3 run by the Pioneers put the Bison in a 14-10 hole. Lien added another kill which was followed by two from Mauch to bring the Bison back in it.
Denver responded with a 3-0 run of their own. Becca Latham hit one of her 13 kills to restore a three-point Denver lead.
NDSU followed with a 6-0 run to go ahead. Lien, Burke and Mauch all had kills and Burke added another block during the run.
Mauch and Burke added kills during a 4-0 run, as did Jessica Jorgensen, to make it 23-20. After that, it was clear sailing for the Bison.
Jorgensen led the team with 12 kills, and Lien added another 10. Mauch had nine of her own, as well as a career-high seven blocks.
In the biggest win of the season so far, the young Bison team sent a message to the rest of the conference.
“We continue to fight, and that is the message we continue to send,” Lopez said after the match. “We are continuing to get better, and we are going to play our game against whatever opponent.”
NDSU was back in action Sunday afternoon against Oral Roberts. The Bison have just one match this week, Friday at Fort Wayne.