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Cougars ranked 3rd in volleyball

The University of Minnesota, Morris took third place in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference preseason volleyball coaches' poll.

The Cougars finished 9-5 in UMAC play a year ago. Third-year head coach Chad Braegelmann has high expectations for his team, which returns all of its starters from the end of last season. The returning experience will be invaluable for the Cougars this fall, as 19 of the 20 players on the roster are in just their first or second season with the program, 17 of which are freshmen and sophomores. Two of those young players are Stephanie Schmiesing and Allie Humphrey, who each return after all-conference freshman seasons. They combine with Megan Theis, another All-UMAC performer, as the core up front for the Cougars this fall. Returning to run the offense in 2010 will be junior Natalie Thomas, who piled up 670 assists last season. With better than seven assists per set, Thomas finished third in the UMAC and was one of just four players with over 400 assists in conference games.

All eight UMAC teams will be in action beginning on Sept. 1, with the conference schedule commencing on Sept. 24. At the conclusion of the 2010 regular season, the league's top four squads will participate in the now-very important UMAC Conference Tournament on Nov. 3 and 6. For the first time in 2010, the UMAC Tournament champion will receive an automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament.

After winning the 2009 UMAC Volleyball Tournament in November, the College of St. Scholastica is the league coaches' preseason prediction to win the conference title in 2010. The Saints, who finished last year's campaign with a 10-4 conference record, return UMAC Rookie of the Year Paige Hardy and honorable mention setter Sarah Kurtovich in 2010. Defensive specialist Nikki Hughes also returns after playing in all 32 matches last season. St. Scholastica will have to replace some valuable leadership from last year as first team All-UMAC selection Megan Baartman is now gone, along with honorable mention choice Rebecca Udermann. The Saints' incoming class includes Anna Zyvoloski, who transferred from nearby University of Minnesota, Duluth. 

Northwestern has won each of the last three UMAC regular-season championships, its team will look significantly different in 2010. While the Eagles lost two-time UMAC Player of the Year Steph Koth and four other starters to graduation, a solid core of players from those championship teams return, hoping to lead Northwestern to a fourth straight title and the NCAA postseason. Chelsea Koth, a 2009 first team all-conference award winner, will headline the team's offense this season from the outside hitter position. Koth is joined up front by Elissa Sandstrom and Greta King, who each started their share of matches last year. Captaining the Eagles' ship in 2010 is senior setter Leah Kostek, who has been a starter in head coach Beth Wilmeth's system since her freshman year. As a team, Northwestern maintained a .189 attacking percentage last year.

Martin Luther College took fourth place in the poll, leading a pool of three teams that finished within two points of one another. The Knights are coming off of a 7-7 conference record in head coach Rebecca Cox's first season of 2009. Martin Luther returns a number of key performers in 2010 as Cox begins her second year in the program and hopes to build off last season's fifth-place finish in the UMAC standings. The Knights return two All-UMAC honorees in Emily Boldt and Renee Peters. Other returning players with significant playing experience include outside hitter and setter Jaime Eternick, as well as outside hitters Katelyn Hauf, Amanda Burk and Jennifer Draeger.

Northland College finished right behind Martin Luther. The LumberJills look to return to postseason play after coming off of their third-place finish in 2009, which was a school best. Northland is also under a second-year head coach in Heidi Smith, who has started to transform the Northland program in less than 12 months of being on the job. Smith lost some big names like Chelsea Lundgren and Miranda Reichert to graduation, but welcomes back seniors Laura Fisher and Carrie Dohlman to the court. Also returning for the Jills are sophomores Erin Roembke and Megan Zynda, juniors Emily Pudlo, Brittany Krenik, Sam Stanfield, Gabby Jukkala, and Sam Bona, who will be joining the LumberJill volleyball team this year as a sophomore.

Bethany Lutheran College is the third member of that 4-5-6 mix, finishing just two points shy of Martin Luther and a point below Northland. For the second straight year, the Vikings are under new leadership as Sue Forrey takes over the team's head coaching duties after the departure of Mike Walters. Forrey's squad features all but one starter from the 2009 season, including setter Nicole Jones, who was an all-conference honorable mention pick last year. Bethany Lutheran's top three leaders in kills in Emily Schrupp, Laura Holt and Vanessa Harkins also return to the lineup to improve on their team's record from a year ago. Forrey has recruited some promising new talent to fill the void of First Team All-UMAC selection Laura Parochka and beyond. Erin Evans, a three-time all-conference player at the high school level, is one of those newcomers who could make an immediate impact.

Crown College and Presentation College tied for seventh place. Crown will look to a solid group of six returners to help lay the foundation for the program. Head coach Kimmie Moehring will be looking for two key returners, juniors Naomi Anderson and Trisha Birr, to lead the team both on and off the court with their experience and leadership.  

Presentation returns three experienced players from the 2009 season including senior Amanda Feist and sophomores Kelsey Schmidt and Amber Sandoz. Helping the Saints will be incoming freshmen Brynn Olson and Tina Boldt.