It was just another postseason game for a battle-tested Bulldog club as the University of Minnesota Duluth started off the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament off with a bang, quickly disposing of Winona State in 55 minutes for a straight-set victory (25-16, 25-11, 25-16) at the Gangelhoff Center in St. Paul, Minn. The Bulldogs, who will play in Saturday's semifinal round, drew a favorable opponent coming into their first-ever crack at an NSIC Tournament -- the fourth in league history -- having dominating the Warriors to the tune of a 68-1 advantage in the all-time series.
The nation's fifth-ranked team, known for its powerful offensive attack, controlled the game from the service line and threw the Warriors off their game. The Bulldogs built an early 16-6 advantage in the first set and junior outside hitter Kate Langebrought the frame to a close with a precise shot to the back left corner. Lange showed exactly why she was named the 2012 NSIC Player of the Year and a first team All-American a year go by scattering a match-high 22 kills -- marking her 64th straight outing with double-digit kills, dating back to Nov. 18, 2010.
"I had a pretty big year last year, and knew that we had a little bit of a different team this season," said Lange. "We brought in a new setter and getting to work with her, [NSIC Player of the Year] is really a team effort. I was lucky enough to get the award but it's really a team award for us."
The Bulldogs once again benefited from the serve and jumped out to a 7-1 second set advantage. WSU would rally and close the gap before sophomore libero Julie Raineymade two remarkable back-to-back digs to save points, propelling the Bulldogs to a run of their own.
“We did an excellent job of serving today,” said head coach Jim Boos. “Our game plan was to attack certain zones and throw them off their system. The thing with Winona is that they run a very fast system with the middle attacker. We hit our spots and they had to play off the net and a lot of things they couldn't do.”
The Warriors would show more grit in the third and final set with their front line taking control of the net and blocking the Bulldogs on four separate occasions to take a brief lead at 10-9. That wouldn't last long, however, as senior middle blocker Kalli Lochner and freshman setter Ashley Hinschcombined to stuff the Warriors on back-to-back opportunities, springing a 6-0 run and opening the floodgates for convincing third-set victory.
Hinsch struggled at times, but racked up 32 assists and posted her 1,000th helper of her young career. Lange produced a milestone of her own, hammering her 500th kill of the season. The Hibbing, Minn., native is on pace to leave UMD with more kills to her credit than anyone in program history.
"We've taken a lot of time out during practices and just working with [Hinsch] on reps with kind of individual positions," Lange said of her chemistry with the team's rookie setter. "I think that's been really good for her this year. She's kind of learned what we expect and what Jim wants of her, and she's getting the tempos down really nicely."
The Bulldogs (28-3 overall) will play against second seeded Southwest Minnesota State University in the semifinals Saturday at 4:30 p.m.