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Tigers look toward next step after 20th win

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Dakota Wesleyan University's Callie Heath (9) tips the ball past the defense of Dakota State University's Samantha Zell (5) during a match on Tuesday night at Christen Family Athletic Center. (Matt Gade / Republic)

When Lindsay Wilber was named head coach at Dakota Wesleyan University, 20 wins in a season was a pipedream and 20 losses was the norm.

On Tuesday, DWU captured its 20th of win of the season for the first time in 26 years. Since Wilber took the job in 2014, the Tigers have gradually improved after suffering at least 20 losses in 21 of 22 seasons since the 1993 campaign, including Wilber’s first two years.

Maintaining that level of success can often be more difficult, however, as DWU begins the next step in the elevation of the program. With three Great Plains Athletic Conference matches remaining, the Tigers (20-9, 4-9 GPAC) likely need to win two of three to reach the conference tournament.

“We’re still in there, but we’ve got a long way,” Wilber said. “That’s a tall task. Going to (No. 24) Midland and (No. 17) Concordia is going to be really hard. We’re going to take one match at a time and not put too much pressure on them and do the best we can.”

Perhaps the biggest growth for DWU has been the amount of talented players it can put on the floor. The Tigers have 10 players that have competed in 80 percent of the 105 sets played thus far, compared to five players a season ago.

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Four players have competed in every set this season -- Rebecca Frick, Emily Brunsing, Dannielle Burns and Mallory Cooper -- while Bridgett Knobbe, Elena Svingen and Chaydon Metzger have logged more than 100 apiece.

Burns and Mariah Gloe have both entered the lineup immediately as freshmen, as has Black Hills State transfer Jadie DeLange. Meanwhile, juniors Svingen and Colome native Callie Heath have found spots in the rotation after spending their first two seasons on junior varsity.

“We have some really talented freshmen that are pushing the table of playing time,” Wilber said. “I feel comfortable putting in any person on my bench at any time. They push each other in practice. When we scrimmage our JV, they beat us sometimes and that means we have a lot of depth.”

Frick remains the unquestioned go-to hitter, but the depth has extended to the offense as well. The senior outside hitter leads the GPAC and is third in the NAIA with 493 kills, but DWU also has two teammates with more than 200.

Brunsing has a career-high 261 kills and DeLange has 220, while senior Brittany Bergquist has 152, giving more options for Knobbe as the setter.

“They’re doing their job, they’re doing excellent,” Knobbe said. “I just hope we keep it going.”

While DWU is having its best season in more than two decades, postseason play remains in question.

Beating a pair of ranked opponents on the road -- Midland and Concordia -- and a Morningside squad receiving votes is a tough ask, but Wilber does not believe missing the GPAC tournament will diminish the steps taken this fall.

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“These girls work as hard as they can,” Wilber said. “I want to make playoffs. That’s my next-step goal as a coach. We’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and be ready for next year.”

DWU faces No. 24 Midland at 3 p.m. today in Fremont, Nebraska and No. 17 Concordia at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Seward, Nebraska.

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