By Jeremy Hoeck
VERMILLION — It was a match the home squad absolutely needed to win, and the University of South Dakota volleyball team played like it.
Energy, intensity, effectiveness. It was all there for USD.
Running their win streak over their in-state rivals to five, the Coyotes dominated in every facet in sweeping South Dakota State 3-0 in Summit League volleyball action Friday night in front of a packed "Den" at the DakotaDome.
Set scores were 25-14, 25-18, 25-15, but in many ways, the deficit was much more lop-sided. The visiting Jackrabbits, for example, led only twice in the match, with both being one-point leads early in a set.
"You could just see that we showed them how focused we were and how educated we were on what they do," said USD junior setter Tori Kroll, who had 41 assists.
"They were already a little flustered, like they didn't know how it would go."
Still alive for the conference tournament, the Coyotes (12-14, 6-8) came out with easily their best overall performance of the season — earning a season sweep for the second straight year over SDSU (16-11, 8-6).
"We just play together and bring out that fire when we face them," USD sophomore Kendall Kritenbrink, who led with 16 kills, said. "It's always a big one for us and we know that."
While at the same time recording their best attack percentage (.298) since the second match of the season, the Coyotes had their fewest attack errors (8).
USD, which at one point this season lost six consecutive matches, also had the edge in blocks (8-4) against the league leader in that stat.
"For about two weeks, we've been stressing nothing but being aggressive," USD coach Matt Houk said. "Those six matches we lost in a row, we lost all initiative. We sat down and said, ŒThat's all we need to do.'"
A big part of the SDSU struggles revolved around what wasn't in Vermillion — 6-foot-3 middle Kelli Fiegen, a Parkston native who remains out with an undisclosed injury.
"It just felt like they were missing something," Kritenbrink said. "We know they're better than that. Their right side and middles did a good job, though."
The Coyotes hit .381 with only three errors in the opening set, never letting the Jackrabbits get into system.
Up 16-15, the Coyotes hit another gear to run away with the second set. The Jackrabbits were totally out of rhythm, as evidenced by their .091 attack percentage in the set.
The third set was never in question, as the Coyotes continued the pressure against the listless Jackrabbits. USD's margin was 20-7 before SDSU made a brief rally — giving their large contingent of fans something to cheer about.
"We feel good about the win, but we feel bad for Fiegen," Houk said. "She's such a big part of their program and what they do."
Kelly Hermann paced the Jackrabbits with 10 kills, while Margit Hansing added eight kills. Shay Birath keyed the defense with 15 digs.
The offense was much more productive for the Coyotes, who also got nine kills from Sydney Dimke, seven each from Natalie Walseth (who left with a knee injury) and Melissa Firtko.
Houk was especially with the continued performance of Firtko, a sophomore middle who has come on of late to help take some of the pressure away from Kritenbrink and Bulaga on the outsides.
"Mel came in and almost like she flipped a switch. That's three matches in a row where she's solidified the middle of the court," Houk said. "She's been putting the ball away when she has a one on one."
The key now for the Coyotes is to prepare for Sunday's 2 p.m. showdown in the dome with North Dakota State (10-15, 6-7), the two-time defending league champions.
"They haven't had their greatest season, but we've got to be aggressive like this to have an opportunity," Houk said. "It doesn't get any easier. We have to get real focused."
Kroll echoed those thoughts, stressing the energy displayed Friday as necessary for a duplication.
"(Today) we'll get back to practice and focus up on North Dakota State," Kroll said. "We'll try to do the exact same thing, with that same energy."
Even if the Coyotes win their final two regular season matches (they also travel to Omaha on Nov. 10), they would need some help in the league to crack the top-four for the post-season tournament.
"It's a game by game thing with us now," Kritenbrink said. "We're not out of it yet, but we still have to fight."
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck