Bison volleyball leaning on seniors like Purnell to ease the transition

FARGO — The large banners hanging on the east wall of Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse are a tribute to the success of North Dakota State volleyball. Two names on the banners hope to bridge the past with the future.
Two banners pay tribute to Jennifer Lopez as the Summit League Player of the Year and Setter of the Year in 2011. Another recognizes Mikaela Purnell as the 2016 Summit Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a great honor to be up there and to be up there with so many great Bison,” Purnell said. “But it’s about everybody and getting not just my name up there, but getting future Bison to come here and creating that name for ourselves.”
It’s been an offseason of ambiguity for the NDSU senior, who saw her head coach of the last three years, Kari Thompson, take the head coaching position at Southern Illinois.
“You’re like, OK, what’s going to happen next?” Purnell said. “We didn’t know who was going to be our next coach or anything. It lasted about a week and we weren’t even at school at the time, so it made us a little nervous.”
But Lopez, a Bison assistant coach, was named the interim head coach in May and the nerves of the returning players started to settle. It’s now the early going of practice and the Bison are in the midst of mixing four returning seniors and six incoming freshmen with three other players.
It puts a premium on leadership, which Lopez said players like Purnell are more than qualified.
“She’s being asked to do a lot in making sure she’s preparing not only herself, but in teaching and continuing to progress the program in the direction they want to go,” Lopez said.
NDSU went 14-18 a year ago, but 11-5 in the Summit. The season opener is not until the Aug. 25 weekend when NDSU plays at the Sun Devils Volleyball Classic at Arizona State. The home opener is Labor Day weekend with the NDSU Classic when Northern Colorado, the University of San Francisco and Florida A&M come to town.
Purnell, a 5-foot-9 defensive specialist/outside hitter from Minnetonka, Minn., is joined in the senior ranks by setter/outside hitter Brianna Rasmusson, outside hitter Erika Gelzinyte and middle hitter Jessica Jorgenson. The Bison lost their top three hitters from a year ago with Jorgenson the top returner in the kills category with 175.
Purnell was a statistical giant. She was third in the country with 5.70 digs per game and finished the season with at least 10 digs in 20 straight matches. She figures to move prominently up the all-time NDSU digs chart this season.
“We’re excited to start off the season and see where we all are,” Purnell said. “It’s definitely been hard at the beginning. Everybody is learning their position and their role on the team but I think it will all come together eventually.”