NSIC VOLLEYBALL: The Northern Sun shines bright in volleyball

MARSHALL – The latest Division II volleyball coaches’ poll came out on Monday and Southwest Minnesota State University was ranked fifth overall.

That marks the 41st consecutive poll that the Mustangs have been in the Top 10 and 137 straight polls dating back a full decade to 2006 with the program in the Top 25. Normally, that type of dominance would indicate the team has a firm hold on the top of the conference, but it is not the case in the gauntlet that is the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

If you looked at the top of this week’s poll, you might think you were mistakenly looking at a list of NSIC power rankings. SMSU may be fifth in the poll, but it is still just fourth among NSIC schools – Concordia-St. Paul, Minnesota Duluth, and Wayne State are all ranked ahead of the Mustangs.

The NSIC dominance does not stop there, as Winona (No. 9), Northern State (No. 11) and Augustana (No. 14) all represent the conference in the Top 15. That list of seven ranked schools means almost half of the NSIC is among the best 15 schools in the nation.

Here’s where things get tricky.

Once we get to the postseason, these schools are jostling for a bid to represent the Central Region in the NCAA Tournament. The issue comes in the fact that only eight schools will represent the Central Region in the postseason.

If the NSIC were the only conference in the region, it might not be a problem. But that’s not the case. Also sharing a region with the Mustangs and the rest of the NSIC are the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) and the Great American Conference (GAC).

Each of the three conferences in the region get an auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament. That means no more than six NSIC schools will qualify. Last year, only three NSIC teams made it into the tournament.

As dominant as the NSIC is in the poll right now, the MIAA is not far behind. It has three teams ranked in the Top 10 and two more are in the Top 25. The GAC has zero teams currently ranked.

All told, there are 12 Central Region programs considered to be among the Top 25 in the nation. But only seven of them will qualify for the postseason field of 64.

Seems like a flaw in the system, no?

I understand that NCAA Division II uses a regional-based model to help cut down on travel budgets. But it’s unfortunate that it causes well-deserving programs to fall short of the postseason while programs in other regions of the country qualify with lesser resumes.

It places extreme importance on the NSIC Tournament, as Northern State experienced last season.

The Wolves entered the conference tournament ranked fourth nationally, but a sweep in the quarterfinals at the hands of Winona State found them out of the postseason altogether because they entered the match just eighth in the region – firmly on the bubble. From No. 4 in the country with a 25-4 record to not even qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, just like that.

Meanwhile, other programs qualified for the postseason like 18-12 Regis and 18-15 New Haven out of the South Central Region, just to name a few.

The extreme difficulty to qualify out of the NSIC makes the current run by Terry Culhane and Southwest Minnesota State even more impressive – 12 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament and going for a 13th this season.

Don’t look at the Mustangs’ No. 5 ranking and assume that the streak will be extended another year, though. As Northern State coaches, players and fans can attest to, postseason qualification is not a given in the gauntlet that is the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the Central Region.

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