Sydney Griffin, UND volleyball senior and defending Big Sky Conference Most Valuable Player, walked into the school's football game at the Alerus Center last Saturday after the volleyball team's final regular-season match at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

She was greeted with a surprising reminder of volleyball's new status in Grand Forks.

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"It's amazing; everyone knows who we are," Griffin said. "(Fans) asked how the game went and how we're doing. They're really informed."

It's further proof that no longer are UND's major sports limited to hockey, football and basketball.

Volleyball has risen to that status, too.

UND enters the Big Sky tournament at 1 p.m. today against Weber State in Sacramento, Calif., where the No. 2 seed Fighting Hawks will try to make the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.

Successful season

UND's home schedule for the 2017 season is finished and the numbers reflect that Grand Forks has embraced the program.

UND finished 2017 averaging 1,398 fans per match, which ranks in the top 10 percent of Division I. It's up more than 300 fans per match from last year.

In September, UND drew a sold-out crowd of 3,140 against North Dakota State. Officials at the Betty had to turn away fans at the door before the match started.

"It's awesome to see how big volleyball has become in Grand Forks," UND's Faith Dooley said. "You can see over the four years I've been here how it's grown. People see you and say they'll see you at the game. It's crazy how many people know who are."

It wasn't always that way.

When UND played at Hyslop Sports Center in 2000, the team averaged 178 fans per match.

Even when UND moved into the Betty in 2004, it averaged 337 fans. The program even averaged fewer than 300 fans until 2008 (293).

In 2008, UND began the process of moving from NCAA Division II to Division I and also hired a new athletic director in Brian Faison.

"I've always believed volleyball as a sport is highly promotable," Faison said. "It's one of the first sports out of the gate, preceding football. It's fast and athletic. I thought coming in we could have a strong program because there's lots of good high school volleyball in the region."

The year before Faison was hired, UND went 6-23 overall and 0-12 in the North Central Conference in 2007.

In the last few years of Division II, UND juggled coaching staffs. The program went from Maria Bruggeman in 2005 to Katy Peterson in 2006 to interim coach Kari Peterson, Katy's twin sister, in 2008.

When Faison was hired in 2008, he elected to hire Ashley Hardee, an assistant coach at New Mexico State, where Faison came from to UND.

Faison has made two volleyball hires at UND and chose to hire both Hardee and Mark Pryor from the coaching tree of veteran New Mexico State head coach Mike Jordan. Hardee spent eight years at NMSU, while Pryor was on the staff in 1999.

"Mike really turned the program around at New Mexico State," Faison said. "I loved his approach, how he recruited and what he demanded of players and how he supported them."

Before Hardee was hired, UND didn't have much in the way of historic volleyball success.

UND's program started in 1976 and despite a dominant run in Division I recently, the program's all-time record is still below .500.

When Faison arrived, he addressed coaching salaries, operating budgets and technology upgrades. In recent years, Faison pushed for video boards in the Betty and cost of attendance for athletes, which he said allows the staff to recruit against regional competition.

Role reversal

When Hardee led UND to a win over North Dakota State in 2011, it was just the second victory over the Bison since 1976. It was the beginning of a complete role reversal in the rivalry.

In Hardee's first year in 2009, UND won the Great West Conference tournament and finished 22-6 through a hodgepodge schedule of D1, D2 and NAIA programs.

Hardee preached serve receive and defense and even utilized a talented young roster he inherited from the previous coaching staff, which included future stars Devin Trefz and Annika Smed.

Hardee's teams dominated the Great West through the 2011 season. UND hit a minor snag in Year 1 of the Big Sky Conference, finishing 15-17 overall and 10-10 in the Big Sky in 2012.

His program bounced back, though, with a strong 2013 (21-11 overall and 17-3 Big Sky).

However, UND saw a major shakeup with the program after 2013 as Hardee resigned following a hit-and-run incident in which he was driving a team van at the hotel in Portland after the Big Sky tournament.

That opened the door for Pryor, who Faison didn't think would accept the job after taking his visit during a nasty winter blizzard.

"They were from Baylor and Waco ... there's a little different weather there," Faison said.

But Pryor liked the facilities and opportunities, and the fact he didn't have to rebuild a program, something he had been part of at two stops already (Boise State and Texas A&M-Commerce).

As for growing the attendance, Pryor said he pushed hard for 11 a.m. Saturday start times. The team had historically drawn well on Thursday nights but struggled up against UND football or hockey on Saturdays.

"I figured it shouldn't have to be an either/or for fans," Pryor said. "You can see or target market on Saturdays. We get a lot of young families and kids. It's a great two-hour activity."

UND's players have become fan favorites. The team often poses for photographs and signs autographs with young fans after matches.

"I think it's due to how we like to play the game," Pryor said. "We talk with our kids to play with joy. They play with a passion and blue-collar work ethic that defines North Dakota in general."

Off to a good start

Before each season, Pryor has his players go to homes and hand deliver tickets to season-ticket holders. After matches, he spurns a traditional locker room breakdown. Instead, he briefly chats with the team on the court and encourages his players to mingle and thank family and friends for coming to the Betty.

"There's nothing that's going to be solved in that moment," Pryor said. "Good or bad, we'll address it the next day."

The wins have helped fuel the fan interest, too, as UND was 32-5 in sets at home this season.

"I think it helps, too, that the Betty is a smaller, intimate venue," Pryor said. "We don't wear helmets like football. They can see our kids' passion. That's why you see players the fans love like Sydney and Faith and Tamara Merseli."

UND will join the Summit League next season. Pryor thinks that'll only increase UND's attendance figures, both because of familiar regional rivalries with the Dakota schools but also because those area schools will travel better than programs in the Big Sky.

As for the next step with the program, Faison said Pryor will like to see some upgrades in staff support.

"Other than that, we'll need to market the heck out of it and support recruiting efforts," Faison said.

Pryor, who said scheduling will be one of his biggest challenges in the future, feels the model for a school UND's size is Northern Iowa.

"It's a smaller community with great fan support," Pryor said of UNI. "We're well on our way to make that happen. I think we can really work on being that team that is Top 50 or 60 every year."

Pryor has now completed four straight 20-win seasons, including a school-record 27 this year, and took the program to its first-ever NCAA tournament last season. When he took over the program for Hardee, UND hadn't won a Big Sky tournament match.

"It has been very satisfying to see volleyball take off," Faison said. "You're never done. There's work to do and there's work to do this week and hopefully it will play out for them in Sacramento. But it has been a great run."