The last two seasons have seemingly brought NIU volleyball back to the “glory days” of the 1990s dominant decade (24.5 wins per year, seven first-place conference finishes, three NCAA tournaments) as the Huskies’ 55 wins over the last two seasons were last matched in 1992-93 (62 wins).
With its first Mid-American Conference regular season championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001 last season, 11th-year NIU Head Coach Ray Gooden (184 wins rank 2nd at NIU) and his two new assistants Lynnette Moster and Joe Julkowski will look to keep the upward trend of the program growing while defending its MAC crown and looking to go even further into the postseason.
Coming off another 25-plus-win season, the Huskies will have some replacing to do, unlike last year when all they had to do was replace two-time All-MAC libero Maddie Hughes – enter Amber Walker, who stepped in as libero to lead the team in digs and solidify the spot once again. This time around, NIU will look to make up for the production lost in four-year players Kristin Hoffman and Allison McGlaughlin and two-year standout Lauren Wicinski, who transferred to Michigan State in the offseason.
All three were starters and crucial cogs in the Huskie machine.
Hoffman, an All-American setter, was the captain of the offense as she set the Huskies on their way to leading the nation in assists (12.27/set) and kills (15.02/set) while ranking seventh in hitting percentage (.279) in 2011. McGlaughlin, a three-time All-MAC outside hitter, was just the ninth Huskie in program history to have over 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs. Wicinski, a two-time All-American outside hitter, won the MAC Player of the Year honor in each of her two seasons at NIU, which had never been done before in program and league history.
Despite what seems like massive losses, the Huskies were already prepared to lose the senior duo of Hoffman and McGlaughlin to graduation and have the pieces in place to produce. The wild card will be how the void left by Wicinski will be filled, which will be helped by the returning All-MAC middle blocker tandem of Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan) and Mary Kurisch (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem).
With the departure of Hoffman, the Huskies will have a new setter in the offense for the first time since 2009.
The two competitors for the gig are junior Kayla Zeno (Lake Elmo, Minn./Stillwater Area) and freshman Alexis “Pookie” Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard). Zeno, a 5’10” athletic setter, has played in 35 matches and 69 sets thus far, compiling 100 assists, 19 digs, eight kills and six blocks. She has mainly been used as a blocking sub for Gooden the last two years and has a chance to elevate her role.
Gonzalez, a 5’9″ setter, brings a winning pedigree as her father Francisco ranked as high as No. 34 in the world in tennis singles play and No. 24 in doubles. At Bullard High School, she was the first four-time sectional champion in badminton in school history, was a four-time first team all-conference tennis player and was a four-time all-conference setter in volleyball. Bullard went 29-1 in conference play and won the last three conference championships under the leadership of Gonzalez. If she catches on quick to the ins and outs of the program, she could find herself running the Huskie offense.
Two key outside hitters left but the stable is still strong with sophomore MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) and senior Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso), who each have significant prior playing experience with the Huskies.
Junior Tori Halbur (Omaha, Neb./Millard West) is in the mix as well as the possibility of moving athletic middle blocker Emily Paschke (Winfield, Ill./West Chicago Community) to the outside for depth. Roddy came on strong in her rookie season, playing in 31 of 35 matches and 100 of 125 sets. She tallied a respectable 163 kills (1.63/set) and hit .247 despite competing with McGlaughlin and Wicinski for swings.
Romo has played in 68 matches and started 21, totaling 401 kills (1.83/set) and a .217 hitting percentage. Halbur has played in 16 sets and has 15 kills to her credit. Paschke played in three sets during her rookie season and had one block as she has two All-MAC performers in front of her at middle blocker.
The strongest unit on the Huskies will be the middles as senior first team All-MAC selection Kurisch and junior second team All-MAC choice Angelos anchor the net.
The 6’2″ Kurisch once again competed with the BIP/USA Development Team for the 2012 China-USA Challenge Invitational Tournament in Beijing and is primed for another stellar season. Last year, she put up a career-best kill rate of 2.28/set, hit .321, had 22 aces, notched a career-high 80 digs, and had her best blocking season to date (0.87/set).
Angelos, a 6’1″ threat, has started all 70 matches for NIU the last two years and has 579 kills (2.27/set), a very accurate .363 hitting percentage and 136 blocks (0.53/set). Grams, a 6’0″ sub throughout her career, has played 35 sets and has 14 kills and five blocks.
At 6’4″, Zielinski brings a physical presence that the Huskies haven’t had since 1990-93 – when 6’4″ Kori Schauer was dominating the net for NIU. Zielinski sat out her senior season due to a torn right labrum but is fully recovered. A two-time all-conference selection, she helped Marist High School go 35-3 in conference play and win a 2010 conference title. She had 208 kills, hit .414 and racked up an astonishing 540 blocks in 40 matches in 2010.
Another strong unit for the Huskies will be the defensive specialists as all three bumpers are back – senior libero Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon), senior Sue Hayes (Evergreen Park, Ill./Mother McAuley), and junior Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore).
Walker admirably replaced two-time All-MAC libero Maddie Hughes in 2011 as she led NIU with 483 digs (3.96/set) and served up 27 aces. Showing her progress, Walker was named MAC West Defensive Player of the Week in the final week of the regular season, and she is hoping to build off it. Hayes has 92 matches and 439 digs under her belt. Schepler has played in 69 of 70 matches with 34 starts in her first two seasons at NIU, totaling 363 digs.
The 33-match slate features 12 home matches, nine matches against 2011 NCAA Tournament participants, and three matches versus 2011 conference regular season champions. The season begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, against North Dakota State as part of the annual NIU Invitational (Aug. 24-26).
For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.