Volleyball preview: Huskies on the rise

NIU Huskies volleyball teamThe 2010 season was a magical one in many ways as the Huskies won their first 11 matches, posted 27 wins for the first time since 1998, sold out Victor E. Court for the first time, featured two All-Americans, and made an appearance in the Mid-American Conference championship for the first time since 2001.

However, the season did not end quite how the Huskies had envisioned.

“The thing that worked a lot last year was that we liked each other,” said 10th-year head coach Ray Gooden. “We have put ourselves in a position to have that chemistry again. We just try to get the girls to take care of themselves and take care of each other. Everyone has worked really hard to improve themselves and bond as a group. We have also worked really hard on taking care of the ball better.”

With everyone back except Maddie Hughes, one of the best liberos in school history, NIU is primed for another run at the MAC title and beyond.

“We are coming off a 28-7 season and return all but one player,” Gooden said. “We lose one big player in Maddie Hughes but bring back a lot of the players that helped us have a successful season last year.

“The next step for us is to hoist a banner. We are hoping to keep all of those individual accolades but it would be much better to get a banner and ring.”

The setters

For the first time in her career, senior Kristin Hoffman did not have to share time with another setter during the 2010 campaign and she showed that she was more than capable of running the offense.

Starting all 35 matches, Hoffman ranked 17th in the nation with an average of 11.51 assists per set, dishing out the fifth-most assists in an NIU season (1,496). Naturally, the honors followed for her outstanding season as she became the program’s first Academic All-American along with earning a first team All-MAC selection.

Behind Hoffman are sophomore Kayla Zeno and freshman Jessica Lubic. Zeno got her feet wet as she appeared in 12 matches in 2010, totaling 48 assists. Lubic was a two-year first team all-area selection for Kaneland High School (Sugar Grove, Ill.) and is coming off a summer in which her club team (Kane County Juniors) won the prestigious 2011 Volleyball Festival.

The attackers

Lauren Wicinski
Lauren Wicinski

Fronted by reigning MAC Player and Freshman of the Year Lauren Wicinski, the outside hitters will provide plenty of scoring for the Huskies.

Wicinski torched the nation, ranking fourth in the nation in aces (71) and sixth in kills (4.82 per set). For her superb season, she was named NIU’s second honorable mention American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-American. Wicinski hopes to take the next step as she represented the U.S. at the 2011 European Global Challenge over the summer and helped her team go 6-1.

“Lauren broadened her horizon in Europe, which was great,” Gooden said. “She now knows that the target is on her back. She wants to not only meet the expectations like she did this past year, but exceed them.”

Along with Wicinski are senior Allison McGlaughlin, junior Meghan Romo, sophomore Tori Halbur and freshman MacKenzie Roddy.

McGlaughlin started all 35 matches last season and ranked second on the team with 345 kills and 28 aces, and has twice been named an All-MAC performer. Romo had her first season with full health in 2010, which enabled her to play in all 35 matches and tally career highs in kills (230) and blocks (65).

Because of the experienced players ahead of her, Halbur played in nine matches and totaled 14 kills in her first Huskie campaign. Coming from California, Roddy brings a winning attitude with her as she led Cajon High School (San Bernardino, Calif.) to three straight conference championships and a perfect 34-0 record in league play. In her final season with the Cowboys, she hit .426 with 304 kills, 93 blocks, and 67 aces in 27 matches.

The middles

Mary Kursich
Mary Kursich

Led by junior Mary Kurisch, the middle blockers have solid depth as well. Last season, Kurisch came back a different player following a summer trip to Brazil with the Bring It Promotions (BIP)/USA Development team.

She went on to play in all 35 matches and lead to the team in blocks (108), while also ranking seventh in the MAC in hitting percentage (.324). This year, Kurisch competed overseas again, traveling to China with the same BIP team for the inaugural China-USA Challenge Invitational Tournament. The Huskies will hope to see Kurisch continue to progress well after another successful summer expedition.

Next to Kurisch are sophomore Sarah Angelos, junior Sam Grams and freshman Emily Paschke.

Like her elder, Angelos competed overseas this summer as she traveled with Wicinski for the 2011 European Global Challenge. The Huskies will look for Angelos to show similar progress and improve upon her stellar freshman season that saw her appear in all 35 matches and rank 29th in the nation in hitting percentage (.367).

Grams saw her production increase in 2010 after playing in 20 matches and netting her first 12 career kills. Paschke enters her first season as a Huskie after receiving Honorable Mention 100 All-State status by the Champaign News Gazette. She hit .392 with 208 kills, 69 blocks and 20 aces in 32 matches as a senior member of West Chicago Community High School’s (Winfield, Ill.) conference championship team. Paschke was also a key component of Kane County Juniors’ 2011 Volleyball Festival championship run.

The bumpers

The most crucial void for NIU to fill from last year’s team is in the bumpers unit. Maddie Hughes was a two-time All-MAC selection and leaves with the second-most digs in Huskie lore.

But the Huskies have a stable of defensive specialists to pick up the production. The two players with the most experience are junior Sue Hayes and sophomore Justine Schepler. Hayes appeared in 34 of 35 matches in 2010 and posted a career-high 220 digs. She also played in 28 of 30 matches as a freshman, compiling 154 digs. Schepler played in all 35 matches in her initial Huskie season and dug up 85 balls.

Three others that will figure into the mix are sophomore Amber Walker and freshmen Cheyenne Dawson and Haley Norris.

Walker has yet to make her Huskie debut after transferring from Western Oregon, but was a two-time first team all-conference choice at Juneau Douglas High School (Juneau, Alaska).

Dawson arrives at NIU after being named an all-conference performer in all four years at Independence High School (Shreve, Ohio) and helped her club team (Cleveland Volleyball Company) take fifth at Nationals in 2010. Norris led Rosary High School (St. Charles, Ill.) to three straight regional championships and was named an All-State performer by the Champaign News Gazette and the Chicago Tribune as a senior. She was also a prime contributor for Kane County Juniors’ 2011 Volleyball Festival championship.

The schedule

The Huskies will face a challenging slate that features matches versus seven top-50 teams from a year ago, five 2010 NCAA Tournament participants and four 2010 conference champions.

The 31-match schedule includes 15 home dates and is highlighted by the season-opening NIU Invitational. The yearly invite is comprised of three 2010 NCAA Tournament teams: Cincinnati, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. In MAC play, NIU has its four home and road dates in an alternating pattern for the first time in under Gooden.

“We play seven teams in the top-50,” Gooden said. “We also open at home August 26th against IUPUI and then face three top-25 teams in Northern Iowa, Cincinnati and Iowa State at the NIU Invitational. It should be a fun and competitive event, but we ramped up our competition in the spring in order to prepare for the fall. We played against teams like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northern Iowa.”

For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.

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