After losing just one set in its first three matches of the 2010 season, including a sweep of South Dakota to start the day, the Northern Illinois volleyball team found itself in a dog fight to claim the NIU Invitational crown over the College of Charleston with an thrilling five-set victory Saturday at Victor E. Court.
“I’m excited about the outcome for multiple reasons,” said NIU head coach Ray Gooden, who swept the NIU Invitational for the fourth time, improving to 30-11 in the tournament since 2002. “First, because we were able to battle against such a quality opponent like Jason Kepner’s College of Charleston team; next, because we played quality volleyball; lastly, because we played really good team volleyball.”
Three of the five sets against the 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifiers took extra points to settle as the Huskies (4-0) only won the first of the three with a 26-24 win in Set One. NIU dominated the second set, 25-15, and dominated most of the third set with a 20-15 lead at one point, but couldn’t put away the Cougars (3-1), who clawed their way to a 27-25 win. The Cougars then come up on the right end of a 33-31 fourth set that took a combined 14 extra points to decide.
After the exhausting fourth stanza, the Huskies regrouped and kept their energy flowing in the fifth set. Trailing 3-0, NIU mounted an 8-3 run to take an 8-6 lead at the turn after a kill by Sarah Angelos. Following a timeout by C of C after the turn, the Cougars scored on a kill from Whitney Russell, but that was the last point they would score. The Huskies then ripped of the final seven points of the match, including three kills by Angelos. The freshman started the run and ended it with back-to-back put-aways.
“ The fifth set, like the entire match, had ebb and flow,” said Gooden. “It was great for our team to make a very strong push at the end that seemed to break the will of the Cougars.”
A balanced attack helped key the Huskies to the win as five players notched 10 or more kills. Freshman Lauren Wicinski led the way with 22, sophomore Mary Kurisch had 16, junior Allison McGlaughlin had 14, Angelos totaled 12, and sophomore Meghan Romo registered 11. Because of the even attack, junior Kristin Hoffman tallied a career-high 67 assists.
“I was really impressed with our ability to not get locked into one particular thing,” Gooden said. “All of our attackers made themselves available and knew that they were capable of making the plays necessary to give us points.”
In the first match of the day, NIU used a fast-paced offensive attack to fluster the Coyotes (2-2). The Huskies hit .366 as a team, tallied 42 kills to USD’s 28, and had 11 aces while the Coyotes had none. Consequently, South Dakota hit .144 as a team and had just 23 digs, compared to NIU’s 41. In the 25-11, 25-17, 25-18 decision, Wicinski (15) and Kurisch (10) both reached double digits in kills.
“In that match, we wanted to pass the ball well enough so that we could run our offense at a pretty rapid pace,” Gooden said. “We also wanted to step up our serve to put pressure on their team because in-system they were dynamic as well.”
“As a group we are convinced that serving and passing are two of the most important parts of the game,” Gooden said of his team that out-aced opponents 35-7 this weekend. “The best teams in the country do both skills efficiently and aggressively. So it was nice for our team to have a positive weekend doing those things.”
For the tournament, the rookie duo of Wicinski and Angelos proved to a big asset for the NIU offense. Wicinski led the team with 86.5 points, 63 kills, and a whopping 18 aces, which led to an all-tournament selection. Angelos led the team in hitting percentage with a .458 mark, totaling 31 kills on 59 swings with only four errors, while also ranking second with nine blocks.
“It was great to see both of those girls have positive first weekends,” said Gooden. “We are excited about their potential and it was great to see them put some of their hard work in practice on the court in matches.”
The two other Huskies who received all-tournament nods were Kurisch and Maddie Hughes. Kurisch led the team with 10 blocks, ranked second with 50.5 points and 44 kills, and hit .446. Hughes anchored the defense with a team-best 66 digs and had just one reception error in 54 attempts.
“I thought Maddie did a really good job as a leader of our defense,” Gooden said. “And I thought Mary had a real solid first weekend as a sophomore. She’s improved tremendously since last fall. Lauren goes without saying. Those three get the individual recognition, but I really do believe our team did some really good things as a whole.”
The tournament championship for the Huskies gave them their first 4-0 start since 2003.
“Our group has set their goals pretty high,” said Gooden. “It was great for our team to get off to a solid start at home, to put ourselves in a spot to play in the championship tonight, and to defeat an experienced and very talented College of Charleston team.”
NIU returns to action at 7 p.m. Tuesday with another home match at Victor E. Court as the Huskies will take on the Bradley Braves. For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.