SDSU in Summit League Tournament for first time since 2010

Andrew Holtan/Register: South Dakota State’s Crystal Burk spikes the ball during a 3-1 win over North Dakota on Sept. 28 in Brookings. SDSU plays Denver in the first round of the Summit League Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday in Vermillion.

BROOKINGS – For the first time since 2010, the South Dakota State volleyball team will be participating in the Summit League Tournament. The Jackrabbits finished the regular season with a 18-11 overall record and a 10-8 record in the Summit League, earning them the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament.

SDSU head coach Dan Georgalas, who is in his second season, said the postseason berth is big for his program.

“[Getting to the Summit League Tournament] is a huge step [for our program],” Georgalas said. “I give our group a ton of credit. We wanted a winning record, which was 16-14. We finished 18-11 in the regular season. We made the conference tournament for the first time since 2010. I think it’s huge step for us. This year was the first full season our staff had coming out of the pandemic. 

“I think it’s a huge accomplishment and we’re all really proud of. This entire time we’ve been preaching to the team that this helps propel the program moving forward. Now the expectation should be having a winning record in every season and making the tournament should be the standard and then we’ll continue to climb the ladder and try to win conference tournaments after that.”

It was the first time since 2012 that SDSU had a winning record. The Jacks went 6-10 in Georgalas’ first season, which was pushed back to the spring and they only played conference games. SDSU went 27-167 in the seven previous seasons before Georgalas became head coach 

Georgalas said that when he got the job his goal was to get to the Summit League Tournament and turn the program around and he thinks his program is ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process.

“I’d say we’ve kind of exceeded my own expectations a little bit,” Georgalas said. “I did think we scheduled right and did a good job of winning two games each weekend in the non-conference and that really helped us get a head start on the winning record. 10-8 in the league certainly is something to be really proud of. 

“I’m really happy with where we are in the conference standings because we’re beating the other schools that are in the middle with us like [Kansas City] and Oral Roberts. We’re competing really well with the top three schools, but we just haven’t picked them off yet. In terms of a timeline I feel like we’re exceeding what I had planned for us already, but it’s still going to take a little bit more building to move into that upper third of the conference].”
SDSU will be taking on No. 3 seeded Denver in the first round of the tournament on Thursday. The Pioneers swept the Jacks in both matches this season. Georgalas said Denver’s athleticism is what makes the Pioneers such a good team.

“[Denver’s] talent level is just off the charts. They’re a deep team. They run a 6-2 system with some of the best servers and ball control players in the conference. The setting position is extremely deep and talented for them as well. Just across the board they’re a really athletic and talented team and I think especially the serving and passing. That’s the toughest matchup for us. If we can hold up in serve receive, which we did pretty well at our place, we definitely did not play poorly. They just kind of executed a little bit more down the stretch when those points mattered most,” Georgalas said.

SDSU is coming off of two road wins to end the regular season. The Jacks topped North Dakota State in four sets on Nov. 18 and then swept North Dakota on Nov. 20. Georgalas said it was important to win those matches heading into the tournament.

“I think it was huge [winning those last two matches convincingly]. If you look at what Denver did last weekend. They weren’t able to do that. They lost in four to Kansas City and had a five set win against Oral Roberts where they were down 2-1. They didn’t have those convincing wins and played really high error. So I like to think that maybe we’re in a little better place going into the tournament. We’re a little happier and more confident maybe. They have a lot more travel to come out here than we do, going down to Vermillion. So I think all of those things kind of work in our favor,” he said.

Denver won the first matchup against SDSU by scores of 25-11, 25-22 and 25-19 on Oct. 14. The second match was a lot more competitive as the Pioneers won 25-22, 25-22 and 25-21. Georgalas said he believes defense is the key to pulling off the upset.

“We have to play some lights out defense. We need to dig them. We need to be physical at the net, even if we’re not scoring points with the block, being able to alter their shot where they’re committing unforced errors and stuff like that. We need to have a good presence and ultimately we have to play clean. It’s been a common message the last couple weeks, we cannot beat ourselves, we cannot show up on our opponents stat line more than we need to. Looking at how high error Denver was last weekend, if we can play clean we might be able to pick them off,” Georgalas said.

SDSU has four seniors on the team. Graduate transfer Chloe Stitt leads that group with 330 kills and a hitting percentage of .217. Tatum Pickar leads the team in digs with 347. Sydney Andrews is fourth on the team in kills with 142 and a hitting percentage of .274, which leads the team.

 “It just makes me super happy [that the seniors get to go to the Summit League Tournament],” Georgalas said. “Especially someone like Sydney Andrews. She was the only four-year senior that we honored this year and she gives this program a lot of emotion. She gives a lot of physical emotion and emotional investment. Sydney really cares and is a great competitor and has a great personality and a source of energy for us. 

“Ultimately I’m just really happy that all of our players are having the opportunity that they have this year. It’s definitely a fun accomplishment to share with them. A coaching transition is never easy and it’s fun to see all of their hard work pay off.”

Senior Crystal Burk leads the team in kills with 412, which is second in the Summit League. She has a hitting percentage of .227. Burk is going to use her COVID waiver and play an extra year next year.

Freshman Ella Thompson has had a nice first season. She has 176 kills and a hitting percentage of .245. She leads the team in blocks with 95. Georgalas said he’s not surprised at how successful she’s been.

“I did [think she would be this impactful right away]. I didn’t know if she would keep her starting spot all year, but coming out of her senior year of high school, Ella was physically mature and a strong athletic player. Lateral quickness in the recruiting process stuck out to us. She’s quick twitch and closes blocks easily. We had an idea that she would come in and do well for us,” Georgalas said.

Now that SDSU has made the Summit League Tournament, Georgalas said it’s time for the Jackrabbits to take the next step, which is getting to the tournament consistently and then eventually winning it.

“To me we should be qualifying for the Summit League Tournament every year,” he said. “That was a vision of mine from the interview process. The way that I look at it is this is the second year in-a-row that we’ve made it. We went 6-10 in the league in the spring season. That was good for sixth place, but unfortunately the league shrunk our conference tournament from six teams to four teams and we were weren’t able to enjoy that postseason accomplishment. 

“This is two years in-a-row that we’ve finished sixth, good enough for the conference tournament, so to me we’re building a trend there and as we get more recruiting classes in and our staff gets more comfortable here I think we’re going to continue to climb the ladder in the Summit League standings.”

First set between the Jackrabbits and Pioneers is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday. You can watch the match at thesummitleague.org.

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