Exactly two months ago, the most successful season in USD volleyball history concluded in the first round of the NCAA tournament, twelve days after the Coyotes upset top-seeded Denver to earn their first appearance to the big dance.
To add to 2018’s good fortune, the team received more news before the turn of the year: Sophomore Sami Slaughter, 2016 S.D. Gatorade Player of the Year, and freshman Maddie Wiedenfeld, a member of the America East All-Rookie team, would join the reigning Summit League champions at the start of the spring semester.
Slaughter, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Harrisburg, S.D., spent two seasons at Nebraska before her transfer. In 2017, Slaughter played six matches for a Cornhusker team that notched their fifth national title. Last season, she totaled 25 kills and 11 digs in 18 matches. Nebraska fell to No. 1 Stanford in the title match.
In one season at New Hampshire, Wiedenfeld, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker from Omaha, played all 27 matches, tallying 252 kills and a .277 hitting percentage, earning America East Rookie of the Week honors thrice in September.
Now on campus, Slaughter and Wiedenfeld are adjusting to life in Vermillion.
“The coaches and players have been helping us out tremendously, which is really nice,” Slaughter said. “I was nervous thinking I wasn’t going to have a lot of friends right off the bat but the girls, right when we met them, opened up to us. They include us in everything they do and I already feel like I’m at home.”
‘Home’ is what drew Wiedenfeld back to the Midwest. Recruited to go east after four years at Marian High School, she said the town of Durham, N.H. was too far from home.
“22 hours is a big change. I’m a big homebody and family girl so I just needed to get closer to home,” Wiedenfeld said. “[Durham] is a lot smaller than [Vermillion]. You have to drive to Maine to go to Target.”
Inversely, Slaughter arrived from a campus of over 25,000 students, nearly 2.5 times more than USD’s student enrollment.
“It’s hard adapting, because I’m used to going to Target like three times a week,” Slaughter laughed. “But I love small towns, so it doesn’t bother me that much.”
In fact, proximity played a large role in the players’ choice to compete at USD. Though they were raised in different states, Slaughter and Wiedenfeld’s families grew up in Hartington, Neb., a town of 1,500 people just 33 miles southwest of Vermillion.
Head coach Leanne Williamson said her and her staff initially recruited Slaughter during her time at Harrisburg High School, where she led the Tigers to a Class AA state title, compiling a school record 39 kills in the championship match.
“Sami we’ve watched for a while, we’ve known her from her younger days through Club,” she said. “We actually recruited her the first time around so we got to know her and her family pretty well. We knew she could be a great fit for us right away.”
Michael Runde, associate head coach, first saw Wiedenfeld during her club career in Omaha, and this season, Williamson was lucky enough to get a look at Wiedenfeld before she made the decision to transfer. The two teams met in late August at the Panther Invitational in Milwaukee, where USD downed UNH 3-1.
“We were actually lucky enough to play against them this fall in our first preseason tournament, so we were able to watch her live,” Runde said. “We didn’t know she was transferring at that time, but we were able to go back to that weekend and watch her physically and what she could do.”
Williamson said right now, the objective for Slaughter and Wiedenfeld is to acclimate themselves with the program.
“Our team is pretty easy-going to start with so it’s pretty easy to feel comfortable. I think it’ll take some time for them to feel that high level of comfort, but every day will get them closer,” Williamson said. “I think their personalities really fit in and overall it’s going to be a good fit.”
“As of right now, it’s just trying to learn everything they’re doing, and we’re doing good with that,” Wiedenfeld said. “It’s a big rebuilding year for just us.”
Slaughter said the two are like “incoming freshman” all over again, but according to Williamson, so is everyone else during the spring months.
“Everybody’s in that position in the spring. So much about the spring is improvement individually. We have a pretty young team as it is, so I don’t think they’re too far off of where our other freshmen are,” she said. “We think both of them can be very instrumental in their future here.”