One of the few known commodities for the Minot State University volleyball team was lost when junior Jen Dixon - the team leader in kills and digs in 2011 - fractured a bone in her foot in late July.
Even with Dixon, the Beavers are an inexperienced bunch. Nine of the 15 players on the roster are freshmen.
"They're gonna grow up before our eyes because there will be six freshman players on the court at one point this year - in every match," MSU coach Travis Ward said.
Minot State University freshman Samantha Ziola-Vega passes the ball to a setter during a practice Monday at the MSU Dome.
Dixon's status for the rest of the season will be clearer after her six-week checkup on September 6.
"I think it could be anywhere from deciding that she's back in two weeks starting for us," Ward said, "and deciding that it's probably better to wait and make sure her foot's healthy and play her next year."
The Beavers open their season Friday with matches against Missouri Western State University and Black Hills State University (S.D.) at a tournament in Aberdeen, S.D.
The competition will only get tougher during conference play as the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which MSU joins this season, is one of the nation's top NCAA Division II volleyball conferences. Concordia University-St. Paul is the reigning five-time national champion and preseason No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Southwest Minnesota State (No. 6), Minnesota-Duluth (7), Wayne State (Neb.) (12) and Minnesota State-Mankato (23) also made the top 25.
MSU was picked tied for last in the 16-team conference in the NSIC preseason coaches' poll.
"My goal for the team as of now is just to compete," Dixon said. "I think as the season goes on we will become a lot stronger, but I think right now what we wanna do is just compete and hope for the best."
Senior right-side hitter Shari Hewson said the Beavers are starting to communicate more effectively.
"We're starting to get used to playing with each other and trusting each other on the court," Hewson said. "At times, we kind of all get a little rattled, but I feel like at the end we always talk it through and come together on the court."
Ward said the 6-foot-1 Hewson, who will play her first games for MSU after stops at South Carolina-Upstate and Williston State College, will be a "centerpiece" of the Beavers' offense.
Dixon expects a productive freshman year from 6-foot outside hitter Mallory Sall.
"She's tall and she can crush it when she gets ahold of it, so I think she'll be a good asset to our team," Dixon said.
Ward said the opportunity to compete in the NSIC is what lured him and several of MSU's players to the program. He just doesn't know when the success will come.
"I think that the future is so bright," Ward said. "It doesn't mean that the future (of) the first match is bright, it doesn't mean that the future two months from now is really bright, but it means that two years from now we've done the right thing recruiting-wise this year.
"I love the kids that we have in the gym and they're gonna be fun to watch. We're gonna compete and chase balls around, and some nights we're probably gonna chase more balls around than others."