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Lady Warriors red-hot with local flavoring

The hottest team in town, not the hottest ticket -- that would be Cardinal football -- is the Ridgewater College women's volleyball team. Crowds are small, but growing as the victories mount.

The Lady Warriors are 21-1 and, for what it's worth, voted No. 1 by Division III coaches in the NJCAA.

Winning is nothing new in this program. It's expected. Val Swanson established a vigorous program in the 1980s and took it into the new century. Joe Sussenguth took over in 2006, winning the national title in his first try. Two national runners-up and a third-place finish have followed.

There's no dropoff this season. Hitters like sophomore Emily Roelike of Belgrade and freshman Hannah Smith of Willmar, both outstanding all-around athletes, make this edition, perhaps, the most crowd-pleasing yet.

Once again, this is a team of locals. Eight players are from high schools covered by this newspaper. All but one - Cassie Edwards of Nevis -- comes from within a 100-mile radius.

The head coach is picking off players that would benefit four-year programs. I asked him how does he select and then recruit players.

Sussenguth responded: "Nearly every night and weekends that we aren't playing, I'm on the road watching various high-school matches and tournaments. Mailing and phone calls are part of the recruiting process, as well as hosting 14 JO tournaments a year."

His first emphasis is that Ridgewater is a place to thrive academically or to establish the foundation of a career before leaving.

The program's reputation for championship play makes it an easier sell. Back home, current and former players spread the word.

Scoop Reif, coach of St. Cloud Technical College swept here on Monday, is aiming his young program at the example seen on the Willmar campus. "It's what we're attempting to become. We're looking for good athletes from good programs. (Ridgewater) is stronger fundamentally than we are at this point and their offense moved too fast for us."

Even though he has only two years with these athletes, Sussenguth finds leaps can be made. He looks for "teaching moments" at every practice. Sometimes, it takes only a cue that a player will grab onto. There's also time in the spring for small group and individual work.

He declines to compare this squad with others. Each team is defined by its chemistry, strengths and weaknesses. What they have in common is the will to succeed, he states.

But what separates this fall's version is the depth of talent and the elevated skill level. Each practice is a showdown. The level of competition forces every player to get better.

"Not many teams that we play have that (advantage)," he said.

On the Fly

* The Cardinals' homecoming game with Sauk Rapids drew 2,145 paid. Despite rain, the home opener vs. Brainerd on Sept. 10 drew 1,134.

* The KRA Fall Festival at the fairgrounds had to delay its start a day but still drew 125 entries on Saturday with a fall off of only 20 cars for Sunday's 4 p.m. start. The track's final race is Friday.

* Taylor Filipek, a 6-foot-6 freshman guard/forward at Eastern Kentucky University, will play a basketball game at Williams Arena against the Gophers on Dec. 11. The Saturday game has a noon start. A group-rate ticket price of $25 has been arranged for Willmar and the Rocori fans, who will be following the Colonels' returning starting guard Justin Stommes. Contact Kerry Edwards at the University of Minnesota ticket office by Tuesday, 612-626-5297.

* The Concordia Cobbers hope Michael Dunham will be ready for Saturday's homecoming. The junior quarterback from Willmar was held out of the thrashing at St. Thomas with a sprained ankle.

* The Cardinals cross-country invitational comes up at 1 p.m. Saturday on the Back 9 at Eagle Creek Golf Course. The boys field includes Moorhead led by senior Lukas Gemar, the 2008 Class AA individual champion who didn't lose a race in 2009 until a foot injury at the state meet.

* MCAC Athletes of the Week in volleyball include Ridgewater sophomore Brandi Bodin, Libero of the Week. The MACCRAY graduate had 60 digs (4.29 average) in the Lady Warriors' 4-1 week. Also, sophomore Macy McKay, All-Around Player of the Week. The Yellow Medicine East graduate had 37 kills (2.64), nine blocks, 24 digs and nine serve aces.

* Men's basketball practice starts Monday. Coach Bob Knutson has four returnees, including forward Nathan Nietfeld of Paynesville. Newcomers include Baxter DuFrane of Lac qui Parle Valley, Jamison Wall of Paynesville, Jess McCann of Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, Adam Sadlemyer of Osakis, Brett Eisenschenk of Rocori and Joey Oftedahl of Delano. The Lady Warriors are schedule to start Oct. 11.

* After 34 years, Little Falls will no longer be a CLC member beginning 2011-12 school year. The Flyers have formed a conference with six other schools, presently, including Foley, Mora and Milaca.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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