Youth and injuries were the most common alibis for the Minot State University volleyball team's struggles during a 6-24 campaign in 2012.
Though this year's squad boasts more experience and depth, several freshman are contributing to a team that has already matched last season's win total.
Lauren Dunkle, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, has emerged as a six-rotation player for the Beavers (6-8 overall, 2-3 NSIC). Alexis Boutin has started several matches at libero. And setter Brooke French performed well in her first extended NSIC action, tallying 31 assists in a four-set loss to Augustana.
Minot State University freshman libero Alexis Boutin, right, bumps a ball in front of sophomore outside hitter Mallory Sall during Midnight Madness in August. Photo courtesy of Sean Arbaut.
"Brooke is a really nice, athletic freshman kid that's learning to locate the ball a little better," MSU coach Travis Ward said. "As she continues to improve with that, she'll become a very good player in our conference."
The 5-9 French was filling in for junior Emily Byrne, who was limited against Augustana with a minor shoulder injury. Ward said he expects both setters to play the rest of the season.
"I don't think anyone places the ball better than Emily in our conference," Ward said. "She's really consistent. Brooke's a little bigger and an athletic kid."
Ward added that 5-8 outside hitter Shaunessy Dauwalder, a redshirt freshman from Stanley, could be a valuable piece to the team moving forward. Dauwalder has 19 kills and six digs in 19 sets played this season.
MSU is getting into the meat of its difficult NSIC schedule and hosts Sioux Falls and No. 7 Southwest Minnesota State this weekend. Ward expects each match to competitive.
"I don't think that there's any guaranteed win in this conference and I don't think there's any guaranteed loss for us if we play good," he said. "I think as we continue to move forward, we're going to see a little of that consistency come. We're going to go up against some of the best teams in the country and are excited to see how well we compete against them."
Football team creating more turnovers
The MSU football team's turnover problems through four games have overshadowed that the Beavers are creating opponent miscues at a higher rate than last season.
MSU (1-3) has four interceptions and two fumble recoveries barely more than one-third of the way through its schedule, while the Beavers managed just eight interceptions and six recoveries in all of 2012.
Winona State tossed two interceptions and lost two fumbles to the Beavers on Saturday, but MSU coach Paul Rudolph said his team missed several other opportunities for takeaways earlier this season.
"We've dropped a few interceptions and got them to put the ball on the ground and then not come up with it," Rudolph said. "On Saturday we came up with more of them."
Sophomore Cooper Helm is tied for eighth in Division II with three interceptions. The rangy 6-foot-3 cornerback has been opportunistic on errant passes into tight coverage.
"I think all three picks have been when the quarterback's been flushed out of the pocket and the quarterback's throwing under duress," Rudolph said. "I think those are team interceptions. Not to take anything away from the picks, but I think those were forced interceptions."
The Beavers own a minus-8 turnover margin, the worst in the NSIC.
South owns cross-divisional football matchups
The NSIC South proved to be the stronger division during the first four weeks of the season.
Teams from the South went 19-13 in the cross-divisional matchups and each of the division's eight squads recorded a win. Minnesota Crookston and Minnesota State University-Moorhead of the North Division are still seeking their first victory.
In a matchup of the highest-ranked teams in the conference, No. 2 Minnesota State University-Mankato of the South Division defeated No. 11 Minnesota Duluth 21-17 on Sept. 21.
Each team's remaining seven games will come against divisional opponents.
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.