With 20-plus wins in each of the last three seasons and three consecutive Mid-American Conference title match berths, the Northern Illinois volleyball team again looks the part of a conference title contender in 2013.
Head coach Ray Gooden enters his 12th season at the helm – tied for the longest tenure in program history – and boasts a 205-150 record heading into the season. He will be joined on the sidelines by assistant coaches Lynnette Moster and Joe Julkowski, along with first year graduate assistant and former Huskie Sam Grams.
Not only does the group look to keep their spot as one of the MAC’s premier programs, but also to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in school history.
“For the last few years, if not every year, our goal is to be the most successful team that we can be for the season,” Gooden said. “I think that’s measured, for us, in championships: MAC championships – whether it be division or regular season or tournament – and going to the NCAA Tournament.”
This year, the Huskies will need to replace four members of the starting lineup: Sue Hayes, Mary Kurisch, Meghan Romo and Amber Walker. However, the group features eight returnees from last season’s squad.
Leading that group are seniors Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan) and Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore), junior MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) and sophomore Alexis Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard). Combined, the quartet played all but six sets for the Huskies in 2012 and have played a combined 314 matches in their NIU careers.
The team will also look to get contributions from the likes of Tori Halbur (Omaha, Neb./Millard West), Kayla Zeno (Lake Elmo, Minn./Stillwater Area) and Emily Paschke (Winfield, Ill./West Chicago). Each has seen significant playing time in the past, but will vie for more time in the starting lineup this year. In addition, redshirt freshman Lauren Zielinski (Oak Forest, Ill./Marist) will get her first taste of action this year after missing 2012 due to injury.
“They have to show how good they are,” Gooden said about the returners. “I think there is competition in the gym right now that will challenge those guys. Sarah has the most experience at that position (middle blocker), playing since her freshman year. So we’re looking for her to show a lot of leadership qualities, not only by example, but also through word and being able to help as many people she possibly can out, as well as achieving her goals. (Alexis) is returning as a sophomore, but there’s a lot of competition for that spot right now. I think whoever plays in that position is going to always have to do their best all the time.”
“As far as other players, we’re talking MacKenzie Roddy. Roddy has had some significant playing time, second year as a left-side hitter. (We’re) looking for her to do some pretty solid things, as well, because she has some pretty high expectations. We expect her to reach every goal that she’s set out. Justine returns this year and is competing hard to be our libero, which will be a role that we feel incredibly confident with her holding. She was good enough to do it last year and she’s more than capable enough to do it this year. Again, we’re looking for her to have a really successful, solid senior season.”
Meanwhile, NIU will also have seven newcomers on the roster.
In the front row, the Huskies brought in Illinoisans T’ara Austin (Joliet, Ill./Joliet Central) and Jenna Radtke (Buffalo Grove, Ill./Stevenson), along with out-of-staters Brianna Horwath (Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater Area) and Mary Grace Kelly (Strongsville, Ohio/Walsh Jesuit), to provide added depth to an already solid unit. Behind them will be sophomore and Illinois-Springfield transfer Sam Mainzer (Cary, Ill./Cary-Grove) and freshmen Paige Dacanay (Crystal Lake, Ill./Prairie Ridge) and Malia Gabel (Pinckney, Mich./Father Gabriel Richard).
“They’ve all done something special in their own way,” Gooden said. “They really have, whether it be Jenna Radtke, (T’ara Austin), Mary Grace (Kelly). Everybody has done something at some point during our training cycle where you can you say ‘Huh, that’s pretty special.’ Now it’s a matter of being consistent. I think they’ll all be able to be in the mix to compete to play. We might see all of them play at some point, but right now they are just working on being able to do it consistently.”
Arguably the deepest position on the roster, the Huskies feature two setters with plenty of game experience. Gonzalez, the starter from 2012, started all 36 matches in 2012 and ranked sixth in the MAC and 85th nationally with a 10.27 assist/set ratio. She also finished third in MAC with a .305 aces/set average, led NIU with 1,376 assists and .378 setting percentage and ranked second on the team with 41 aces. Meanwhile, Zeno played in 30 matches and 74 sets in 2012 and has seen action in 65 matches in her career. Last season, she set a career-high with 25 kills and was a valuable player off the bench for the Huskies in 2012.
Coach Gooden’s Take…
“’Pookie’ played a lot for us last year. Kayla is going into her senior year and has made significant strides, so there’s really solid competition for setting. I think both of them are capable of leading our team and I think that is a really good thing to have to have two very capable setters. Look to see contributions from both of them throughout the season.”
Despite losing Romo to graduation, NIU will have very few concerns at the pins. The top returner at the position will be Roddy, who played extensively in all 36 matches a season ago. The junior led the MAC and ranked 89th in the NCAA with 0.34 aces/set ratio, while also leading the team in aces (44) and points (522). The Californian set career highs in kills (446), kills per set (3.35), assists (26), assists per set (0.19), aces (44), aces per set (0.33), digs (326), digs per set (2.43), blocks (49), points (522) and points per set (3.90). She will be joined on the outsides by Halbur, who added 18.5 points for the Huskies. The rest of the position is filled with freshmen in Austin, Kelly and Horwath. Though only in their first year with the Huskies, all three posted stellar high school careers in earning multiple accolades and helping their respective schools to deep runs in the state high school tournaments.
Coach Gooden’s Take…
“For the pins, we’ve got Roddy, who’s really dedicated herself over the summer and you can see a lot of that in practice. Tori is going to be a senior and continues to compete for playing time. The rest are rookies. T’ara Austin is just a physical presence. She’s a high-flyer and is fun to watch. Mary Grace Kelly is very physical and continues to get better every single day. Bri Horwath is a lefty and she has a physical presence on the left side, so she’ll compete really hard for a spot on that back pin. There’s a lot of youth, but there’s a lot of potential in that entire group.”
The middle will be one position with plenty of new blood, but it won’t be completely devoid of experience, either. Leading the way inside will be the senior and 2012 all-conference pick Angelos, who has started every single match of her career at NIU. In 2012, the Waukegan, Ill., native posted career-highs with 341 kills and 100 total blocks. Angelos’ hitting percentage of .292 ranked seventh in the MAC and was named the Missouri State Invitational MVP by hitting .413 with a 3.00 kills per set average and 12 blocks to help the Huskies to a 4-0 weekend. Another Huskie with middle experience is Paschke, who has seen time at the middle and outside in her career and converted a career-best 64 kills in 2012. After Angelos and Paschke is Zielinski. An imposing figure in the middle at 6-4, the Oak Forest, Ill., native missed all of last season from injury, but looks primed to make an immediate impact inside. Additionally, Radtke could make an immediate impact as a true freshman. After only picking up the game as a high school sophomore, she totaled 319 kills, 114 solo blocks, 151 assisted blocks and a .378 hitting percentage in two varsity seasons with Stevenson High School, helping the team to regional titles both seasons and a sectional crown in 2011.
Coach Gooden’s Take…
“The middles is a pretty big and physical group. You got Sarah, whose a repeat all-MAC performer who has significant playing time and a lot of experience. Then you have a lot of other kids who are really hungry to battle for playing time. One of those is Emily Paschke, who’s going to be a junior and continues to improve. Lauren Zielinski is going to be a redshirt freshman, so she’s had a year of rehabilitation and strengthening. She’s looking to make some contributions and, at 6-4, she’s the biggest player that we’ve had since I’ve been here. Freshman Jenna Radtke has done a really nice job. She’s really fast and physical. I think all four have a chance to see time not only in the middle, but also potentially on the pin.”
After losing Amber Walker to graduation, Schepler becomes NIU’s primary libero in 2013. Hailing from the nearby town of Sycamore, she played in all 137 sets last season and led the team with a .982 serving percentage. Schepler added 14 service aces and a 0.10 service aces per set average, while ranking second on the team with 339 digs and 2.47 digs per set. Also at the position are newcomers Mainzer, Dacanay and Gabel. In her lone season at Illinois-Springfield, Mainzer led the Prairie Stars with 321 digs and 3.15 digs/set in 2011. For Gabel, she comes to NIU after garnering all-state, all-area and all-conference honors in 2012, while leading her high school to their first district title in 21 years. Fellow freshman Dacanay was a stand-out at Illinois state power Prairie Ridge High School the past two seasons, helping the Wolves to regional and sectional titles in 2012.
Coach Gooden’s Take…
“Our bumpers, that’s where Justine will start out wearing the libero jersey. Our bump squad is really solid, as well. Paige has done a really good job. I think Malia continues to improve, as well as Sam. Again, those guys will continue to fight for not only playing time, but overall contributions to the team this season.”
As has been the tradition in the past several seasons, the Huskies will face a daunting schedule with eight 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifiers and five conference champions. NIU begins their 2013 campaign with the NIU Invitational against No. 23 Ohio State, defending Big South champion Liberty and regional rival Green Bay. The Huskies will tie a program record by hosting 19 contests inside Victor E. Court this year, as they take on the likes of No. 4 Southern California, Northern Iowa, Belmont, Missouri State, Western Michigan and Ohio, among others.
Coach Gooden’s Take…
“I think that there are plenty of opportunities for us to improve. Plenty of opportunities for us to hit some positive marks and we have plenty of challenges. Every match will have its own storyline. Whether it be the opening match against Green Bay and (former NIU assistant) Michaela (Franklin) returning here in her first collegiate match as head coach. Whether we’re playing against Liberty, whose a very solid team from their conference and goes to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, to Ohio State, who’s nationally-name and nationally-ranked, and everybody else. That’s just our first weekend. I think every single match has its own storyline. We’re excited about it because there’s balance up and down, big/small, great to really good. I think it is a good challenge for our team.”
For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.