Eisen: Predicting Minot State conference wins for the women’s programs

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series in breaking down and predicting what the maximum (ceiling) and minimum (floor) number of conference wins each Minot State athletic program could achieve next season.

Individually scored sports and non-school sanctioned (club) sports are not included.

Last season, MSU’s athletic programs won 67 conference games altogether – the most since joining the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) five years ago. They accumulated 42 wins during the 2015-16 season, after 52 wins (2014-15), 64 wins (2013-14) and 59 wins (2012-13).

I’ll cover the women’s teams today, having covered all four in some capacity last year. Sports editor Garrick Hodge will sort through the men’s programs in part two on Friday.

Three Minot State University women’s athletic teams will have new coaches next season. Meanwhile, the women’s soccer program will try to defend the first NSIC regular season championship in school history, despite losing valuable pieces to a once completed puzzle.

At first glance, it appears the MSU women’s programs will have a difficult time in matching their combined 31 conference wins from a season ago. But, for some of these programs, it can’t get much worse than what happened last year. Sometimes, the only place to go is up.

Volleyball

Let’s begin with probably the easiest floor to identify out of all the Minot State athletic teams – male or female – with zero conference wins. This isn’t a knock on the volleyball team, but rather praise to their competition.

The NSIC is the powerhouse conference in Division II volleyball. The final American Volleyball Coaches Association coaches’ poll last season ranked five NSIC teams within the top eight teams in the nation.

Concordia-St. Paul, last year’s national champions, have won eight out of the last 10 national titles.

As for Minot State, the Beavers haven’t won a conference match since two sports editors ago here at the Minot Daily News. That’s 40 straight conference losses across two seasons. The Beavers last NSIC victory came on Nov. 8 in the 2014 season finale against Winona State.

MSU came close to winning a few conference matches in the 2015 season by reaching the decisive fifth set three times. But not so much last season with a host of underclassmen, which included eight freshmen, as the Beavers only won six sets in the 20 NSIC matches they lost and they never forced a fifth frame.

Can the streak be snapped? Sure. All those fresh faces have a year of experience under their belts and new head coach Dana Cordova is in charge.

The Beavers best chance would be to steal a win away from one of the bottom feeders like Bemidji State (3-17 NSIC last year), St. Cloud State (3-17) or the University of Mary (4-16).

Surely, this winless drought can’t last forever. Then again, I bet the last guy who was sitting at my desk said the same thing.

Floor: 0 Wins. Ceiling: 2 Wins.

Basketball

One week ago, the news broke of former Division I standout Holly Johnson returning home to Minot to play basketball for the Beavers. The fact she was granted a full season of eligibility by the NCAA was also significant news.

The question that remains is how much of an impact can she have? Injuries have derailed her collegiate career at North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota over the past two years.

Will the third time be the charm when it comes to senior seasons?

Well, first-year head coach Mark Graupe expects Johnson to contribute right away.

She joins a rather experienced group that loses one starter from last year in Kori Eurich, as well as Morgan Hunter. Eurich started 28 games last season and averaged 8.6 points and 3.5 rebounds.

So, while basically bringing back the same team, a new coach and a promising transfer does bring optimism and a certain level of mystery about them that they can use to their advantage.

I think the building blocks have been laid for the Beavers to improve on their 4-25 overall record and 2-20 in the NSIC last year. Considering that’s the worst mark in program history since making the jump to Division II, it’s easy to say they’ll have a better season. It’s just hard to pinpoint what “better” means.

But, nonetheless, here is my shot in the dark.

Floor: 4. Ceiling: 9.

Softball

One of my favorite sports to cover, but also so hard to predict. In my experience, successful collegiate softball teams always stem from pitching.

So, seeing the likes of ace pitcher Jenn Spencer graduating doesn’t make a good first impression. Spencer led the team in innings pitched (163.0), appearances (28), wins (15), complete games (14), opposing batting average (.274) and even saves (2).

Next on the pitching depth chart was Clarissa Ramirez. She has graduated as well.

That leaves sophomore Emma Casey and senior Sydney Prigge left from last season. They pitched a combined 34.2 innings out of the 300.1 total innings pitched last year by MSU.

To address the glaring need, new head coach Dave Kivett’s first recruit brought in was a right-handed pitcher: Laura Mendez. The junior transfer from Riverside City College in California led her team in innings pitched (112.1) with a 11-12 record and a 4.42 ERA.

None of the seven other recruits announced so far have been listed as pitchers.

If the depletion of the pitching core wasn’t enough, the Beavers also lose speedster lead-off hitter Jordan Grant and steady infielder Rachel Burdette to graduation.

Long story short, Kivett has his work cut out for him.

The Beavers were middle of the pack last season in the NSIC with a 15-15 record.

They had glimpses of being a high-caliber team. Most notably coming two outs away in the regular season finale from beating eventual national champions Minnesota State Mankato. But, they also had times of struggle. Getting shut out four times and being battered by Augustana, 20-3.

Without the pitching, I can’t see them getting back to .500. This looks like a transition year to get adjusted under a new coach and an uphill battle in trying to outslug their opponents.

Floor: 7 Wins. Ceiling: 13 Wins.

Soccer

I’d like to preface this by saying I’ve never met a coach like Jason Spain, and that’s a good thing. His intensity and competitiveness is one of a kind.

With that said, I know he is going to use what I’m about to write as motivation. And I’m fine with that, it’s what he does. I’ll gladly throw gas on the fire if it means the Beavers prove me wrong.

Well, here it goes. I can’t see MSU repeating as the NSIC regular season champions or getting back to 14 conference wins.

Right now, I just don’t know where the offense is going to come from. The graduation of last year’s striker partnership between Ninfa “Ninja” Ramirez and Chloe Melton leaves a massive vacancy in MSU’s attack, as the duo scored 31 of the team’s 45 goals in 2016.

Another star scorer, or two, needs to emerge.

While the Beavers sort out their offensive firepower, I’d expect a very defensive minded, counter-attacking system from Spain. The byproduct of that will be low scoring games and the possibility of more ties. Thus, meaning fewer points in the chase for another regular season conference championship.

Add in the added pressure of defending the NSIC title and conference foes gunning to knock them down a peg, it puts quite the target on the Beavers’ back.

That said, don’t get me wrong. With a solid returning defensive core and Spain at the helm, MSU will be in every NSIC contest this fall. Down to the final whistle.

It’s just how many wins, and not draws, can they eke out.

Floor: 8 Wins. Ceiling: 13 Wins.

Final tally — Floor: 19 Wins. Ceiling: 37 Wins. Averaged out: 28 Wins.

This is the opinion of Alex Eisen. He covers Minot High School, Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.