South Dakota went to the NCAA Tournament in 2018, losing to Creighton in the first round.
But a team that finished 21-10 lost four seniors, including Summit League player of the year Hayley Dotseth.
However, while sixth-year coach Leanne Williamson knew her Coyotes would still be pretty good in 2019, but this good? South Dakota is off to a 21-1 start, 10-0 in the Summit, and has won 18 matches in a row.
“It’s been kind of like a puzzle, putting the pieces together,” said Williamson, who was a South Dakota assistant for five years before being promoted to head coach in 2014. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of depth on our team, but eight of the 16 people on our roster are new. So there’s a lot to learn about chemistry, how to learn from errors, players getting to know the coaches, coaches getting to know the players. That’s been really fun, but also challenging.”
Two key components have made it less challenging for the coach, herself an honorable-mention All-American as Leanne Felsing at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she finished in 2007.
A strong South Dakota freshman class is highlighted by Elizabeth Juhnke, who has not only filled the role left by Dotseth, but has almost identically duplicated her all-around numbers.
And there was some good fortune in the form of a couple of key transfers, including Sami Slaughter, who left after two years at Nebraska.
“We had some good keys that we knew were returning who we thought were going to do some good things for us,” Williamson said. “Our freshman class we’ve been looking forward to for quite a while now.”
Let’s start there, specifically with Juhnke.
“She’s taken on a big load for us,” Williamson said.
Juhnke leads the team with 316 kills (4.0/set). The 6-foot outside hitter from Lakeville, Minnesota, a product of M1 who is also second in digs (245, 3.1/set) on the team only to senior libero Anne Rasmussen (380, 4.81/set). She’s also got 58 blocks, four solo.
“She’s done really well. We knew that she could come in and probably do some really good things for us, but you never know how somebody’s going to make that transition,” Wlliamson said.
Pretty well, evidently.
South Dakota went 3-0 the first weekend, beating IUPUI, Valparaiso and Murray State at IUPUI. All Juhnke did that weekend was total 52 kills, including 23 against Murray State, 34 digs, seven aces, and seven blocks. Not surprisingly she was the Summit League offensive player of the week.
“She’s competitive, she wants to be really good, I don’t think she’s really fearful in most situations,” Williamson said. “She just came in and really attacked it and set the standard for what that class can really do.”
That would include Madison Harms, a 6-2 middle from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, who has 94 kills and is second on the team with 77 blocks, eight solo.
The other middle is Maddie Wiedenfeld, a 6-2 sophomore from Omaha, Nebraska, who made the America East all-rookie team last year before transferring from New Hampshire. Wiedenfeld has 164 kills (2.08/set), is hitting .356, and had 84 blocks, nine solo.
The other outside is Slaughter, a 6-1 junior who plays sparingly for the Huskers the past two years. She’s got 268 kills (3.39/set), and 45 blocks, three solo. Slaughter is from nearby Harrisburg, South Dakota, and was on Williamson’s radar a long time ago.
“We recruited her out of high school,” Williamson said, “so we know her and her parents pretty well.”
Slaughter originally committed to Creighton, changed her mind after moving to the outside from being a middle, and chose Nebraska. And when she decided to leave the Huskers, “we reached out to her right away.”
The setter is redshirt-sophomore Madison Jurgens, and the right side is senior Elizabeth Loschen, the only four-year starter on this season’s roster.
Jurgens, a 5-9 product of Odell, Nebraska, is not only averaging 11.37 assists, but has 45 kills, a team-high 36 aces, has 19 blocks and is third on the team with 205 digs.
“She is a really great competitor,” Williamson said. “She’s done a really good job of running the offense.”
Loschen, 6-2 and from Omaha, has 164 kills (2.13/set), and 51 blocks, three solo.
The libero is 5-4 Anne Rasmussen, a senior from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, who has 380 digs (4.81/set), 79 assists and 19 aces. She was the Summit League defensive player of the year in 2018 after leading the conference in total digs (604) and digs per set (5.44)
South Dakota’s only loss was in the fourth match of the season, a sweep at Iowa State. Then the Coyotes went to Kansas City and swept Tulsa, Kansas City and Louisiana Tech. The pre-conference success continued with three victories in a home tournament over UC Davis, Wyoming, and then a five-set win over Iowa, the first home match against a Big Ten opponent in program history.
After wins at Bradley over NIU and Bradley, South went into Summit League play and has been on the edge a few times, winning in five against Omaha, at perennial league power Denver (the team it beat in the conference final last year to get into the NCAA Tournament), and at North Dakota State. The Coyotes have swept their last four matches but have quite a challenge ahead as they go to fourth-place Omaha (13-11, 6-4) on Friday and are home against second-place Denver (16-6, 8-2) on Sunday. After that are matches against South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and they finish at third-place Purdue Fort Wayne (13-11, 7-3).
So clearly the race is wide open. The good news for South Dakota is its current NCAA RPI rank is 43, which puts it in contention to get an at-large bid if the Coyotes don’t win the Summit League tournament and the automatic bid that goes with the title.
“With our team we’ve really tried to stay in the present,” Williamson said. “It’s hard. That can be difficult.
“The RPI thing, I love to see our name up there, I love to see that the success is helping us get to where we want to be, but really it’s about each day. It’s about attacking each day, winning that day, and going 1-0.”
And Williamson, 33, added this perspective for her team.
“Good teams can go through the first half of the conference and be undefeated. Great teams can go through the second time and be undefeated. We’re working toward being great.”