The NAIA volleyball season is already a month old. And now the real fun begins.
This week marks the start of the 2012 Frontier Conference season – a season in which the league has a new school and some teams trying to chase down four-time defending Frontier champion Lewis-Clark State.
Over the next two and a half months, the conference, which is known as one of the strongest in the NAIA will be a race to the postseason. The Frontier features some powerhouse teams, like LC State, UGF, Rocky Mountain College and Carroll College, all of which have been at or near the top of the Frontier for years now. But teams like the Montana State University-Northern Skylights, the Westminster Griffins and the UM-Western Bulldogs might have something to say about just who ends up on top come November.
On thing is for certain, this season in the Frontier may be as competitive as it’s ever been.
“This league is just loaded with solid teams,” Fourth-year Northern head coach Bill Huebsch said earlier in the summer. “There is really no match where you’re going to be playing an easy team or a pushover. There is a lot of really good teams and a lot of really good players in our league. I think it’s as strong as it’s ever been.”
Here’s a breakdown of the 2012 Frontier Conference by team, in its predicted order of finish.
The Warriors have seemingly had a stranglehold on the Frontier regular season championship and have been to 19 of the last 20 NAIA national tournaments. And while LC State (3-5) was picked to win the league title again this year, heavy losses due to graduation have set them back a bit in the preseason. LC State lost three first-team all-conference players and the league’s MVP from last year’s 13-1 team, but the Warriors have stars in the making in senior outside hitter Brianne Brown and sophomore middle Chelsea Strong. Setter Nevena Dragovic will also be a key to LCSC’s chances of repeating as Frontier champions in 2012.
Rocky Mountain College
The Battlin’ Bears had a dream season in 2011, finishing 30-5 and 12-2 in the Frontier, and going to the national tournament in the process. But the Bears (4-9) lost five all-conference performers from that team, and though they are ranked high to start the season, they’ve stumbled out of the gate as well. Freshman middle blocker Anna DeWald is the only player returning with starting experience, while the Bears work in a host of new faces this season. Still, Rocky has height and a proven system, and after the Bears work out some kinks on the floor, they’ll certainly be a force in the Frontier.
If there is a team poised to unseat the Warriors in 2012, it is likely the Fighting Saints. Carroll (10-4) has been knocking on the door for several years now, and with the return of star middle blocker Elle Graff, Carroll is imposing at the net. But the loss of three all-conference performers, including setter Caitlin Tocci, has Carroll also working in new players into the rotation, so the Saints will try and pick up momentum as the season goes along. But, with sophomore hitter Kathleen Mulligan turning into a force on the outside, and a bevy of talented players up front, Carroll is built like a team ready to win a Frontier title.
The Argos were once the cream of the Frontier crop and they’re trying to get back there this season. After a couple of down years by UGF standards, head coach Arunas Duda has a team which can certainly vie for the league crown in 2012. Senior outside hitter Kelsey Van Uden is perhaps the best player in the conference, while sophomore Alyssa McEwan had a breakout freshman season. And the Argos (9-5) are an up-tempo, strong serving offensive team, and they will give opponents plenty of trouble this season.
Like the Saints, the Griffins have been so close to getting to the top of the Frontier the last few years. Westminster (7-4) always has talent and depth, but has struggled to win league matches on the road the last few years, and that’s held the Griffins back. Sophomore hitter Alexis Aaona is a standout and an offensive weapon, while libero Kyndall Kordakis is a returning all-conference performer. If the Griffins can win road matches this season, they’ll be a tough team to contend with for everyone else in the Frontier.
The Skylights were a team on the rise in 2011, but they want more this season. Northern returns starters Hillary Isleifson, Kelsey Williams, Holly Cartwright and Victoria Polo, and Huebsch brought in three quality junior-college transfers to make Northern an even more veteran team. The Skylights (6-8) are also off to a strong start in the preseason and they have played a schedule which will certainly prepare them for the Frontier’s challenges. If Northern can stay consistent in October and into November, then the Skylights could be a team that finishes in the top half of the league standings.
The Bulldogs were once the pride of the Frontier Conference, but have fallen on hard times in this decade. But Western (5-7) has plenty of talent to work with this season and the bulldogs have played well early on. Western has lots of new faces, but the Bulldogs will be a strong blocking team at the net this season, and they will no longer be an easy out for the rest of the league.
The last few years, the Orediggers have been picked to finish high in the Frontier, only to stumble and deal with major injuries. But Tech is off to a 10-2 start this season, and despite being picked to finish eighth in the league in 2012, the Diggers’ might be the surprise team of the season. Former Big Sandy star Shersteen Cline is having a monster season and might be one of the most talented hitters in the Frontier. And if Tech continues to play well around Cline, the sky might be the limit this season.
What is known about new league member Dickinson State is that the Blue Hawks suffered through a dismal 2011 season, their last in the DAC. And though they are off to a 2-6 start this season, the fact that DSU is an unknown quantity to most Frontier teams will certainly work in the Blue Hawk’s favor. DSU is commonly known as a scrappy defensive team, but the Blue Hawks do have players that can kill the ball too, so they will certainly tests all Frontier teams in their inaugural season in the league.