If there was ever a time to play the moral victory card, it would be now for the Minot State University volleyball team.
The Beavers went toe-to-toe Friday with No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul, the six-time defending NCAA Division II national champions. C-SP rallied from a seven-point deficit in the second set and lost the third before pulling out a four-game victory (25-17, 26-24, 23-25, 25-15) at the MSU Dome.
The Golden Bears (21-1 overall, 13-0 Northern Sun) had swept their previous four opponents and seven of their last eight.
Minot State University freshman Lauren Dunkle, left, and senior Kelsey Wingo block a spike attempt from Concordia-St. Paul’s Riley Hanson on Friday at the MSU Dome.
"We sort of believe we can beat everybody," MSU coach Travis Ward said. "It's not a cocky thing. We think we're playing decent volleyball and when we play our game and play it well, we think that we can play with the teams in the Northern Sun and, obviously, some of the best or the best team in the country."
MSU sophomore outside hitter Mallory Sall's enthusiasm was less tempered.
"We're on top of the world," said Sall, who tied junior Jen Dixon for a team-high 14 kills. "Everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing tonight and it was so much fun.
"We beat the No. 1-ranked team in a set. We should've taken two off them. That's just so exciting. That just shows where our program's going and where we'll be in the future. We better play to that standard every time."
C-SP never trailed in the first set and kept MSU (9-13, 5-8) at a safe margin.
But the Beavers blitzed the Golden Bears for a 20-13 lead in game two, displaying a balanced attack and taking advantage of six hitting errors and a service error from C-SP.
Then the Golden Bears locked up their defense - while MSU tightened up - and C-SP won 13 of the next 17 points. Middle blocker Heather Schiller recorded a solo block and a kill on consecutive rallies to close out the set, 26-24.
"I think we started digging a little bit more balls," C-SP coach Brady Starkey said. "Their team came to compete. They were getting after it and being aggressive. We earned a couple points, we got a couple digs, but they also had a couple mishits that let us chip away at the lead."
No team held more than a three-point lead in a cleanly played third set, which MSU won when Sall pounded home a kill.
MSU led 7-2 early in the fourth game, but after C-SP battled to tie it at 12, the Golden Bears won 13 of the next 16 points. Sophomore Emily McDonough finished with a match-high 20 kills, Erienne Lauersdorf added 18 and two-time first-team All-American Kayla Koenecke chipped in 17.
That was with an improved defensive performance from the Beavers, who recorded more tough digs and eliminated sloppy miscues that were common earlier in the season. Sophomore libero Ashley Heavenor finished with a team-high 17 digs and Dixon tallied 13.
The Beavers impressed Starkey, who said MSU looks much improved from last season - when a young, injury-laden roster struggled to a 6-24 record.
"You can see it in just their maturity, how composed they are," said Starkey, the three-time national coach of the year. "They're not getting bent out of shape when they make a mistake. They're coming back and staying aggressive."
Said Sall: "We wanted to show that we can play with them, and I think we did."
MSU hosts Minnesota State-Mankato (9-11, 5-8) at 3 p.m. today.
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.