Fighting Hawks sweep their way to UND Classic title

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (UND Athletics) -- Continuing the dominance on its home floor, the University of North Dakota volleyball team picked up a pair of sweeps over Western Carolina (25-19, 25-19, 25-16) and Louisiana Tech (25-17, 25-16, 25-17) on Saturday to close out its portion of the UND Classic presented by Buffalo Wild Wings at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

"It was great to see our team continue to grow," said Head Coach Mark Pryor. "We have so much room for improvement, and it's nice to see us take measurable small steps each time we play."

Pryor continued.

"I think we are starting to get a little more in sync defensively form a blocking and digging standpoint. That will help us to slow teams down. We also saw improvements from some of our younger players as today went on."

UND (4-3) has clinched the title of the tournament, its sixth championship since 2011 in the weekend classic. Eastern Washington, Western Carolina, and Louisiana Tech will each all play at least one match tomorrow to determine the final placings of the teams.

Since the finale of the 2016 version of the annual tournament, the Fighting Hawks have won 26 of their last 27 matches at the Betty and have only dropped nine sets during that span.

"I thought our returners all played solid, which allowed our newcomers to get comfortable and really expand their roles some," Pryor explained. "Roosa Rautio continued to progress and it was nice to see. Brynn Nieukirk had a good offensive match against Louisiana Tech, so that is a big step for her. Kayla Williams isn't a freshman, but she is still new, and I really like how she made some really nice defensive reads on defense to keep rallies going."

UND 3, WCU 0
In Saturday's opener, UND recorded 8.5 blocks and held the Catamounts to just a .051 hitting clip in the 3-0 sweep.

Kayla Williams led the way with a game-high 11 kills on 27 swings for a .333 hit percentage. The Staten Island native missed out on her fifth double-double of the season, but did record six digs, two service aces, and a block.

Ashley Brueggeman continued her strong hitting weekend with 10 kills on just 16 attempts (.438) while Aliva Fraase collected 18 digs and Roosa Rautio added 32 assists to lead the contest.

Julia Vetter made her collegiate debut in the win for the Hawks, collecting five assists and a pair of digs in the final set.

Western Carolina came out swinging in the opening set, scoring the game's first five points before taking a 6-1 lead. After the Hawks cut the deficit down to 7-3, a Jordan Vail kill sparked an 8-0 run by the home team to take an 11-7 lead and force a WCU timeout.

The Catamounts mounted a comeback of their own to eventually tie the set at 15; however, UND pulled away from a trio of Vail kills and a massive triple block by Rautio, Lydia Rutten, and Bryn Nieukirk to win the frame, 25-19.

The second set was all Fighting Hawks as the hosts built an early lead and never relinquished it. WCU again closed the gap from eight down to two late in the stanza, but UND struck for five of the final six points to grab a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission.

Pryor had emphasized throughout the week about his team's inability to close out a set or match the weekend prior in Texas, and his message was well received in the third set on Friday afternoon as UND dominated the Catamounts in the frame. The Hawks scored 16 of the first 20 points to take a season-high 16-4 lead.

Vail ended the match with a slam to take the set, 25-16, and cement the sweep.

UND 3, LTU 0
In front of the largest home crowd of the young season, UND battled to its final sweep of the weekend over Louisiana Tech to clinch the tournament title.

It was a balanced effort on the offensive side for the Hawks, with Williams leading the way with nine kills. Vail and Nieukirk both tallied eight and Brueggeman added six to pace the victors.

On the defensive side, Fraase again led the way with 14 digs, but Rautio and Williams both added 10 to see three Hawks in double figures. The freshman setter also collected 32 helpers for her third double-double of the season.

It was an entertaining opening set as the sides went back-and-forth to see UND clinging to a 15-13 lead at the media timeout.

With the Hawks up 20-17, a block by Vail and Brueggeman sparked a run of five straight points to pull away and capture the first set, 25-17.

The second frame followed a similar script to the beginning of the first as neither team could build a large lead until a Rutten kill to make it 10-8 UND ignited the crowd and pushed the hosts on another large scoring run. UND struck for seven of the next nine points to push its advantage to 17-10 and push the scales towards the green and white.

The Hawks polished off the stanza, 25-16, to head into the locker room with a 2-0 win and push their set winning streak to eight.

Facing the potential sweep, the Lady Techsters attacked in the third, jumping to an early 10-5 and forcing an early Hawk timeout.

Out of the timeout, UND started to claw its way back into the contest before scoring back-to-back points on kills from Nieukirk, Rutten, and Williams to bring the Betty to its feet and force a timeout.

The hosts took control for the remainder of the set, scoring nine of the final 10 points to complete the weekend sweep.

North Dakota returns to action next weekend with a trip to Clemson, S.C. for the Big Orange Bash hosted by Clemson. UND will battle Troy on Friday before squaring off with UAB and the host Tigers on Saturday.

Pryor knows that playing on the road is always difficult, but is excited for the challenge the upcoming weeks present to his young squad.

"It only gets harder from here, but that is exciting for us to go be challenged."