With a 3-0 win over Illinois Chicago to take first place Saturday night at the UIC Invitational at UIC Pavilion, the Northern Illinois volleyball team has boldly gone where no team in program history has been before — 8-0 to start a season.
“To be 8-0 at this point is a very positive thing for our group,” said ninth-year head coach Ray Gooden. “It helps us put our name in a special place in a program that has a lot of history and pride.”
Since becoming a Division I program in 1970, no Huskie volleyball team has been off to such a beginning to a campaign. In the 27 sets so far, 24 have gone in favor of NIU, including the last 13 and all nine in the UIC Invitational. During the winning streak over the first two weekends, the Huskies have won two tournaments and have been better than every opponent in kills (397-270), hitting percentage (.320-.166), digs (390-309), and aces (70-17).
In achieving the longest winning streak since 2001 (18 matches), freshman outside hitter Lauren Wicinski (Geneva, Ill./Geneva) fronted the Huskies with her second double-double of the day, and fourth of the season, with a team-high four aces and 21 kills on 36 swings for a .472 hitting percentage along with 10 digs.
After winning Mid-American Conference West Division Offensive Player of the Week in her first weekend, Wicinski garnered the tournament MVP honor this weekend. In the three matches, she hit .464 with 49 kills on 84 attacks, while also totaling 10 aces and 30 digs. She led the team in each of those categories, except hitting percentage, which was claimed by freshman Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan), who hit .556 with 22 kills on 36 attempts.
“I thought Lauren had a real nice and complete weekend,” Gooden said. “She made some improvements with her passing and defense over the weekend.”
Joining Wicinski on the all-tournament team was senior libero Maddie Hughes (St. Charles, Ill./North). The 2009 MAC Defensive Player of the Year gathered a team second-best 25 digs and seven aces in the three victories.
“Maddie had a second solid weekend of anchoring our team’s defense,” Gooden said. “She’s getting better at not only playing well herself, but continuing to find ways to make others better.”
After a 3-0 win over Memphis to start the day, the Huskies seemed to be a little slow in the early goings of the first two sets against the Flames (2-3). NIU took the opening set 25-22 and the second 25-23, but then found their mojo once again in the third set for an easy 25-14 decision. For the match, the Huskies held a 51-41 edge in kills, .362-.257 advantage in hitting percentage, and 48-38 lead in digs. They also blocked (5-2) and served (7-3) better than UIC.
“In our first true away match of the year, I thought we battled against a very determined UIC team,” said Gooden. “We were able to withstand their charge at us for two games. It was nice for us to be able to settle down and play some very positive Huskie-style volleyball.”
Like Wicinski, junior outside hitter Allison McGlaughlin (Morton, Ill./Morton) achieved a double-double with 11 digs and 10 kills. Sophomore middle blocker Mary Kurisch (LaCrosse, Wis./West Salem) added nine kills and a team-high four blocks, while Angelos had six kills on 11 swings for a .455 attack percentage. Junior setter Kristin Hoffman (Batavia, Ill./Batavia) paced the offense with 42 assists, and had eight digs. Hughes led the defense with 13 digs.
Narrowly trailing most of the initial set, the Huskies broke a 21-21 tie on a Flames serve that went too long. Sophomore outside hitter Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) then arched a crosscourt shot over the defense to the back left corner to give NIU its largest lead of the set. After a UIC point, Wicinski cut a ball sharply across the court off a one foot jump from the left side and a Flames attack error into the net gave the set to the Huskies.
Down by four points two different times, and needing two timeouts to regroup, NIU fought its way to another close win in the second set. Trailing 19-15 after a timeout, kills by McGlaughlin and Romo and an Angelos block brought the score within a point. Out of a UIC timeout, the Flames scored and kept a two-point lead until Kurisch swiped a ball off a block and a UIC attack error off the pin tied the score, 23-23. Kurisch and Wicinski teamed for a block to end the next play. Then, just as the first set did, a Flames attack error into the net gave the Huskies a 2-0 match lead.
After re-energizing in the locker room during the break, the Huskies came out strong in the third set, taking a 5-1 lead after a kill by Kurisch. UIC closed within a point at 6-5, but NIU went on a 4-0 run to force a timeout by the Flames. During the spurt, Wicinski notched three of the points with a kill and consecutive aces, and added a third straight ace on her serve following the timeout. From there, NIU ended the match with a 14-9 run with it ending for a third time on a UIC error, this time a long serve.
With no midweek matches next week, the Huskies play again this weekend in the final invitational of the season for the team. In North Carolina at the Elon Classic, NIU will face Elon at 1 p.m. (Central Standard Time) and Liberty at 4:30 p.m. Friday. On Saturday, to finish the current six-match road trip, in which NIU is 3-0, the Huskies will face Stetson at 11 a.m.
For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.