By Matt Higgins & Kelsey Whaley, MIAC
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Most people celebrate New Year's Day every year on Jan. 1. Not in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). For the conference and its 13 member institutions, that new year begins in late August or early September, with the start of each new sports season. In the MIAC, chronologically, fall comes first.
The big ball in Times Square can't hold a candle to the first kickoff of the fall.
There's nothing quite like the start of a new sports season. Veteran players return with increased confidence. Newcomers join their team, filled with optimism. Everyone is still undefeated, and each and every goal is still realistic and attainable.
Rather than a countdown to midnight, the MIAC has started its own tradition to celebrate its new year - the MIAC Camp Tour. In 2013, the concept started with a preseason visit to a handful of MIAC football training camps. The idea expanded to include all nine football teams in 2014. This year, the idea grew again to add volleyball to the mix.
The MIAC's Matt Higgins (football) and Kelsey Whaley (volleyball) embarked on a two-week adventure to see the student-athletes' preparation and enthusiasm in action, and documented each stop with videos, photos and blog posts. With games starting and preseason training camp coming to an end, Higgins and Whaley each weigh in with their prevailing thoughts and observations from their trip around the MIAC.
Working in a conference office is great, but after previously working on a campus, there aren't nearly as many opportunities to interact directly with student-athletes. That's a big reason why we started the Camp Tour concept back in 2013 and have expanded it each year since - to get on campus and feel the energy that comes from the student-athletes as they embark on a new season.
This year's trip around the conference got off to an interesting start, as rain, thunder and lightning chased practice indoors at my first two stops - Gustavus and Bethel. However, since they were my first two visits, there was still a definite sense of excitement even if indoor workouts are a drastically different scene than seeing football out in its natural habitat. Thankfully, Mother Nature cooperated the rest of the way and my final seven stops enjoyed outstanding weather, which added to the thrill of attending each camp.
As I made my trip around the conference, I was struck by the fact that nine similar college football teams could all prepare for the upcoming season so differently, yet still radiate a stunningly similar feel and atmosphere. The enthusiasm and hope were nearly identical at each stop, but the methods each team employed as they went about their business of preparation were all markedly diverse.
This year, I felt like the teams broke down into several different tiers, where certain teams shared very similar storylines with others, which should make the journey through the 2015 MIAC season more interesting. Those subplots begin with rivals Saint John's and St. Thomas. The Johnnies return many of the key pieces from last season's MIAC championship team, and the Tommies also have a great nucleus back after joining SJU in the NCAA Playoffs. They enter the year both ranked in the top 14 nationally (SJU No. 9, UST No. 14) and both have exceedingly high hopes within the conference and beyond. Both teams were crisp and energetic during my visits, and the high expectations at each camp were palpable.
Bethel and Concordia have also been entrenched as MIAC contenders in recent seasons, and both return a ton of weapons in 2015. Each has a stout defense with some of its top tacklers back, and each has skill position standouts in the backfield and at receiver. However, both teams are replacing star quarterbacks, so fans are eagerly awaiting how the new signal-callers guide these championship hopefuls. In both cases, my visits revealed confident, skilled teams who are hoping their new QBs can step in and utilize the talent around them to soar to new heights.
|An Augsburg receiver hauls in a pass during the MIAC Football
Camp Tour visit to the Auggies' practice in Minneapolis.
(Photo by Matt Higgins, MIAC)
Gustavus and Augsburg definitely don't have quarterback questions heading into 2015. Gustie QB Mitch Hendricks and Auggie QB Ayrton Scott are both back for their senior season and looking to build on their already-record-setting campaigns. Each also has their top targets back and both offenses expect to be among the most feared in the MIAC. In each camp, the offenses were already functioning at an advanced level, and each was putting increased emphasis on being aggressive on defense to try to compliment the offensive prowess in 2015. If each can maintain its high-scoring ways, and supplement with strong defense, the Gusties and Auggies could also be in the mix.
Hamline had one of the more energetic and physical practices during my trip around the league, and it's clear that Head Coach Chad Rogosheske has his team rounding into his image as he starts his third season leading the Pipers. HU doubled its win total to four a year ago, and hopes to keep progressing. In Northfield, both Carleton and St. Olaf are hoping to improve on their win totals from a season ago, and I found both practices to be very encouraging in different ways. The Oles might be having as much fun as anyone - their players told me they've really enjoyed this camp, and the off-the-field bonding has been carrying over into their work on the field. At Carleton, I saw a team that is really committed to one another - the way the team encouraged one another and worked together was impressive, and the Knights are hoping that will pay off on Saturdays in 2015.
Last year, I recapped the camp tour by writing about the hope that was apparent at all nine camps. This year, that same hope exists, but the prevailing themes of my tour this time around were the process and the culture associated with each program. It was great to get a behind-the-scenes look at each team as they prepare for the upcoming season, and see how it all comes together from drills and fundamentals to coaching to putting in the playbook. The amount of time, energy and effort that these teams put in is staggering, especially when you see it up close.
Also, football programs are big on the word "culture," and that's no different in the MIAC. I could definitely feel the distinct cultures at each camp, and see how the coaches were working to mold their student-athletes into a unit to work together toward common goals, but also how those cultures appear to affect the players individually, equipping them with tools to help them succeed off the field.
Football season in the MIAC is always such a special time, and the build-up is especially energetic. That's part of what makes this camp tour such a fun endeavor. Not only do I get a glimpse of each team before they've played a single down, but I get to share that glimpse with the incredible fans across the MIAC. Thanks to the access each team provides, the camp tour is an excellent appetizer while waiting for the main course to kick off.
In the inaugural year of the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour, I was able to see all 12 volleyball programs between Aug. 20 and Sept. 5. I saw 11 volleyball teams either play or scrimmage in just nine days (Aug. 20 to Aug. 28) before ending the camp tour with Concordia on Sept. 5. It was a great way to kick off my internship in the MIAC office. I started in the beginning of August, and this camp tour was a great way for me to get reacquainted with 12 of the MIAC’s 13 campuses and interact with both the student-athletes and coaches.
My goal during the camp tour was to see every team practice on their home court. I was able to do this for Macalester, Saint Mary’s, Bethel, Saint Benedict, St. Thomas, Gustavus, and St. Olaf. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sit in on a practice for the other five programs. However, scrimmages offered a unique opportunity to see these teams in game-like situations before the season started. I was able to watch Augsburg, St. Kate’s, Carleton, and Hamline at preseason scrimmages hosted by Macalester (Augsburg and St. Kate’s) and St. Olaf (Carleton and Hamline).
There are two very different dynamics between practices and scrimmages. For one, practices are much more skill-oriented, while scrimmages are more game-oriented. What I mean by that is, practices are meant to improve specific skills for a team rather than work on in game situations. Drills and sessions are meant to focus on certain aspects of the game, specifically passing, setting, hitting, blocking, serving, and serve receive. There are several drills that I would label as “favorites” for all volleyball coaches, not just those who work in the MIAC, such as: hitting lines, the butterfly serve receive drill, pepper, and four corners just to name a few. However, drills helped me see how fundamentally sound each team was at the basic skills of volleyball.
Another aspect that I saw during practice was the relationship and dynamic between a coach and his or her players. Often times during a game or scrimmage, the coach has more of a sideline role. Yes, they are still actively involved in the game, but they cannot physically go on the court and talk to their players or correct their mistakes. Essentially, the coaches react to the players’ performances. However, during a practice, coaches have a much more active role. They get to teach techniques to their players, correct mistakes, and have more control over the plan and the drills that take place. It’s always interesting and fun to see how the players respond to their coaches, and it is quite clear that volleyball players in the MIAC have a lot of respect for the men and women they play for.
|Carleton teammates celebrate a point during a preseason
scrimmage during the MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour.
(Photo by Kelsey Whaley, MIAC)
If there’s one difficulty to judge during practice, it’s the lack of an opportunity to see how a teams will perform in game-like situations against other teams. Coaches will often end practices with an intrasquad scrimmage, but that only gives them a glimpse of how their team competes against themselves. Inter-school scrimmages, however, are like real volleyball matches; only the outcome doesn’t count towards a team’s overall record. Scrimmages give coaches, opponents, fans, and individuals like me a chance to see how a team will perform during a game. It may not show everything a team has in their arsenal, as no two sets or matches in volleyball are the same, but it does give everyone a glimpse of a team’s competitive nature. Scrimmages often show a team’s true character, especially in adversity, but provide glimpses of a team’s full potential.
Both practices and scrimmages are previews of how a volleyball team might perform throughout the year. These previews were all I needed to confirm that the MIAC will once again be one of the most competitive conferences in Division III. It would not be surprising if three or four teams made the NCAA tournament at season’s end. Every match will be a true competition, and what sports fan doesn’t love that?
RE-LIVE THE 2015 CAMP TOURS
While the MIAC Football and Volleyball Camp Tours provide a look at each team as it prepares for the upcoming season, both seasons are already under way and the real fun has begun. However, visit each camp tour's home page (Football - Volleyball) to re-live any of the stops through the YouTube videos, blog posts and photo galleries from each visit on the tour.