Freshly anointed Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Lauren Wicinski tallied 29 kills, helping the Northern Illinois volleyball team advance to the MAC Championship match with a 3-1 win over Toledo, Saturday.
Northern Illinois (27-6) will be playing in its first MAC Championship game since 2001, when the Huskies won one of their two league titles.
“For us it was another really, really difficult MAC West match,” NIU head coach Ray Gooden said. “We started off real strong in the first set and did some nice things.”
The Huskies won the opening set 25-22, as Wicinski tallied three early kills and an ace to give NIU an 8-3 edge. Gooden’s team held a 20-15 edge when a 4-0 spurt by the Rockets brought them within one point. The Huskies finished the game with a 5-3 run on the strength on two more kills by Wicinski.
“I thought Lauren Wicinski did an amazing job, and held true to her form of being player of the year,” Gooden said.
Toledo bounced back to defeat the Huskies 25-19 in game two to tie the match at one game each. NIU hit just .182 in the set to the Rockets’ .364 hitting percentage.
“They came back with an equal amount of energy, if not a little bit more and won the second set,” Gooden said.
The Huskies retook the lead with a 25-18 result in game three. NIU opened up with an 8-1 burst and rode the seven point advantage to a 2-1 lead. The Huskies’ balanced attack helped them control the set, as four NIU players tallied three or more kills. Wicinski and Sarah Angelos had four, while Mary Kurisch and Allison McGlaughlin totaled three kills each.
“We pressed really hard in the third set and were able to pull it out,” Gooden said. ““We did a really nice job making some adjustments from Toledo’s adjustments.”
Wicinski dominated the fourth set with nine kills, including four in the game’s first seven total points, helping NIU to a 5-2 advantage. The set turned into a grinding dogfight, with the Huskies hitting just .085 and the Rockets swinging at only a .093 clip. With eight ties in the game, it was anybody’s set at 20-20. Wicinksi and Kurisch put together back-to-back kills to put the Huskies up 22-20, forcing a Toledo time out. Out of the break, Wicinski added another kill to bring NIU within two points of the championship match.
The Rockets answered with three straight points, receiving two off NIU attack errors, to tie the set as 23. A Meghan Romo kill brought NIU within one point, and an attack error by Toledo’s Lauren Rafdal put the Huskies in their first MAC Championship match in nine years.
“We wanted to do the things that we could control: control the contact… control the ball with the touch… put our team in transition to score, and eventually put the ball away,” Gooden said. “But we hard to work to do it.”
After Wicinski, it was Angelos with 14 kills and Kurisch with eight that paced NIU. McLaughlin added six kills. Senior Maddie Hughes, who was named to the All-MAC Second Team at the opening of the tournament, totaled 24 digs. Kristin Hoffman tallied 51 assists.
The Huskies will face second-seeded Ohio out of the MAC East Division in the championship game, Sunday at 2 p.m. (CST).
“The West (division) has been fast and diverse in our offense; I think the East (division) is much more physical,” Gooden said. “We’re going to have to step up our serving, we are going to have to step up our covering. We’re excited… we are happy to be a part of it on Sunday.”