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UND rested and ready for the NCAA volleyball tournament

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UND volleyball players celebrate a point during their Big Sky Conference tournament opening game Thursday at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Big Sky tournament MVP Faith Dooley's shot goes past Northern Arizona's Brittni Dorsey. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

UND volleyball players reported to fall camp in late July. The first weekend they didn't have practice or a match came nearly four months later on Thanksgiving weekend.

"We gave our players four days off, to let them heal mentally and to let their bodies heal," said UND coach Mark Pryor.

The time off was refreshing, said UND hitter Faith Dooley. The junior from Casselton, N.D, and her UND teammates hope the break will be beneficial, too, as the Fighting Hawks prepare for their biggest match in program history.

On Friday, UND will meet Minnesota in a first-round NCAA Tournament match in Minneapolis. UND, which won the Big Sky Conference regular-season title and postseason tournament, is playing in its first Division I postseason volleyball tournament.

"We had a little bit of time to get away and see our families," said Dooley. "It helped. We came back and hit it hard in practice this week."

Minnesota is not an unknown to 26-9 UND, which has won its past 11 matches. The teams met Sept. 16 in Minneapolis, with the Gophers taking a 3-1 win (25-12, 21-25, 25-20, 25-18). Minnesota is a national power, too, and will take the No. 2 overall seed into the 64-team tournament.

"We've played them once and we're excited to play them again," said Dooley, who has 311 kills on the season, which rank third on the team to Tamara Merseli's 362 and Chelsea Moser's 327. "We have some familiarity with them. We know some of their tendencies. It's a great matchup for us."

Minnesota (25-4) will be the heavy favorite as the Gophers will be seeking their second-straight Final Four appearance.

But that's OK with UND, said Pryor.

"We know it's kind of a David versus Goliath match," said Pryor. "We get that. But there is a reason they call it David versus Goliath. We took one set from them the last time so it shows that we can do some things.

"We're going to have to play very well. And if they give us an opening, we're going to have to take advantage of it.

"Minnesota has always been the premier program in the Upper Midwest. To play against a team that is one of the nation's elite and play in a fantastic environment is a no-lose situation for us. We can go in and play loose. If we can be 1-1 at the break, we have no pressure. All of a sudden, that pressure transfers to the Gophers."

UND is one of four teams in the Minnesota regional. In addition, traditional volleyball powers Southern Cal and Hawaii also are in the field. USC meets Hawaii in the first match Friday. The winners meet Saturday.

The Gophers will be led by outside hitter Sarah Wilhite, the Big Ten Player of the Year, and Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Big Ten Setter of the Year.

The Minnesota coach is Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. national men's team to Olympic Gold and the U.S. women's national team to Olympic Silver.

"The only metal I have is spare parts for my Bronco," quipped Pryor.

But that's the attitude UND will take to Minneapolis, where the Gophers have won 32 straight home matches.

"Minnesota is expected to win and win convincingly," said Pryor. "For them, it's a no-win situation. If we can catch a break or two, we'll see what happens."

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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