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Burmeister's big season has the SMSU volleyball team heading down the right path

Photo Courtesy of SMSU Athletics Southwest Minnesota State University's Brooke Burmeister, of Lakefield, hits during a match earlier this season in Marshall.

MARSHALL -- When Devin Diedrich went down with an ACL tear in the final match of the spring season, the Southwest Minnesota State University volleyball team was faced with playing its 2011 fall season without one of its best players.

Although she was already a go-to player for the Mustangs in her first two seasons, junior outside hitter Brooke Burmeister knew that she would have to step up her game even more to help fill the void.

"I'm having to step up this year more than I have in the past," said Burmeister, a native of Lakefield. "Devin went down last spring, so it's obviously a big hole to fill. We're all having to contribute more than we have in the past to help fill that gap, because she was a huge part of our team, and still is."

In large part due to Burmeister's contributions, SMSU has so far amassed a 13-5 record this season and is currently ranked No. 9 in the nation in the NCAA at the Division II level.

"Our season has been good," Mustangs head coach Terry Culhane said. "Could it be better? Yeah, it could be, but we're ranked in the top-10 in the country, so some people must think we're doing something right. Brooke has been an integral part of that success, not only this year, but the last two years as well."

Even though Burmeister leads the team in kills and has become a player that other teams structure their defenses around, she feels that she could always be doing more to help the team.

"I feel like I'm doing what I need to be doing, but I feel like I can still contribute more," Burmeister said. "I have a pretty high expectation of both myself and my team. I'm always striving to be better and have everybody else play better. We're never satisfied with what we already have."

What the Mustangs already have is a streak of seven-straight years of advancing to the regional level of the NCAA tournament.

This year, Burmeister is hoping that she and her teammates are able to take the season one step further and advance to the national level.

"We really want to make it to regionals and then we really want to win the regional and go on to the national tournament," Burmeister said. "But the first step in that is making it to the regional."

Since Burmeister joined the program after graduating from Jackson County Central High School in 2009, she has played in almost 250 matches. She finished with 279 kills her freshman year and 401 her sophomore year and leads the team so far this season with alomst 300 kills. She is also a top defender for the Mustangs, ranking third on the team in digs this season.

"I think Brooke has really surpassed people's expectations of what kind of player she was going to be in college," Culhane said. "She's played pretty much every match of her college career and there aren't many kids who can say that on teams as good as Brooke has played on. I think that speaks for itself."

Her contributions on offense have come despite the fact that she has had to hit against the opposing team's top blockers in almost every match.

"The thing that is difficult about volleyball is you get teams gearing up to stop people," Culhane said. "Having Devin hurt has made life more difficult for Brooke as a volleyball player, because teams are gearing up to try to stop her. She was a third team All-American last year, so they know she's capable of scoring at the net. Most of them design their blocking schemes to try and stop Brooke."

Though the Mustangs have suffered some losses this season, they have come against top opponents such as Wayne State (Neb.), the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Concordia, St. Paul.

"Our losses have all come from top-10 teams in the country, so it's not like we're getting beat by people who don't know how to play," Culhane said. "It's just a real competitive environment, we like that and we just need to progress from that."

However, SMSU has also shown some truly great potential with victories against other tough opponents, such as Central Missouri -- who was ranked No. 2 at the time -- and Seattle Pacific.

Although SMSU's fans have become used to success during Culhane's seven seasons at the helm, he knows that the team can never be complacent about its accomplishments.

"The problem with that is sometimes people forget how hard it is to do that," Culhane said. "We just can't take it for granted. Every year that's a goal of ours to qualify for regionals so we are playing in the national tournament. Once you get to the regional you just take it one match at a time and last as long as you can."

Looking past this season, Burmeister has something to look forward to with her sister Whitney having given a verbal agreement to come to Southwest Minnesota State to play volleyball following an excellent career at JCC.

However, she knows that she must avoid thinking too far ahead and focus entirely on the current season first.

"Year by year is how our team likes to play it," Burmeister said. "You can't be thinking about the next year when you're living in the year that we're in now. So we have to finish out this year the best that we can and then go from there."

Even with the level of talent that Brooke and Whitney have displayed in their careers, they aren't the only Burmeisters to have exhibited a great proficiency for the sport.

Brooke's mother, Lonna, was a standout volleyball and basketball player for Lakefield High School and helped get the girls involved with Junior-Olympic volleyball. The oldest sister of the four, Leah, went on to play college volleyball at Weber State in Utah and both Whitney and the youngest sister of the four, Kaylee, are teammates for the Huskies' varsity team this year.

"My older sister kind of started it and then we all kind of grew up around it," Brooke Burmeister said. "We were basically gym rats growing up, always in the gym. My mom coached for so many years and helped with J-O. So when Leah would go to practice me and Whitney would go, then when I'd go Kaylee and Whitney would go. We all just kind of grew up with it. Whitney, Kaylee and I played in the yard all the time at home -- it's just a hobby that we got into."

Playing college volleyball has made for a busy schedule for Brooke as an environmental science major with and a minor in coaching, but she has received the support of her professors to be able to thrive in both her academic and athletic pursuits.

"Some of the professors are really understanding about it," Burmeister said. "We usually miss quite a few Fridays during the season and thankfully they let us come and make up notes and do a lot of makeup work. I know if that wouldn't happen it would be a lot harder, but all of them are pretty understanding."

The Mustangs have a pair of home games this weekend for Alumni Weekend -- playing St. Cloud State on Friday and Concordia, St. Paul on Saturday -- and on Tuesday the players will get to show their professors just have much their support means to them on Faculty Appreciation Night, during which each player will get to walk into the gym with their favorite professor.

No matter what the special theme is during the team's matches, however, Burmeister just wants to help her team win as many of them as possible to get to regionals and hopefully beyond.

"We need to play hard enough the rest of the season and come out with a lot of wins, that's all that we pretty much can do," Burmeister said.