Something had to give as Northern Illinois and Western Michigan entered Thursday night’s Mid-American Conference West Division showdown at University Arena on three- and four-match winning streaks, respectively.
Unfortunately for the Huskies (18-13, 9-6 MAC) the Broncos (19-9, 12-3 MAC) stayed undefeated at home (7-0) for a 23-25, 26-24, 25-21, 29-27 win.
Coming into the night two matches behind WMU for first in the West standings, second-place NIU had a chance to put some heat on the Broncos and close within one match with each team having one contest to go. But the Huskies were unable to do the improbable like they did last year to win the West outright – beat WMU at home under head coach Colleen Munson.
The Broncos are 53-9 at home under Munson and 7-0 this season. NIU’s 3-1 win last year on Nov. 10 was WMU’s only loss at home in conference play over the last five years.
In a match that was decided by two points in three of four sets, small advantages for WMU helped the cause as the Broncos held 61-57 kills, 30-24 hitting errors and 10-8.5 blocking advantages. Slim, but enough to add another W to their impressive home record in MAC play.
“Both teams worked hard to win rallies,” said NIU head coach Ray Gooden.
“We did a good job of winning them early and into the second set as well. Western did a really good job of winning bigger rallies later on. They won the right plays at the right times. It was a typical Western-NIU match — both teams close numbers-wise, just a matter of winning big points. We battled and did a good job at times but just didn’t do it long enough.”
NIU’s chances were looking good early on as the Huskies overcame an 11-5 first set deficit to take a 21-16 lead. The 16-5 run started with an ace by sophomore outside hitter MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) and she served the next four points before missing.
In that span, two kills from junior middle blocker Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan) and putaways by senior outside Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) and freshman setter Alexis Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard) put momentum in NIU’s favor to close out the set.
The Huskies kept pushing in the second set, opening a 16-11 edge. NIU maintained the cushion until a 6-2 WMU run knotted the match at 22-22. After the teams exchanged attack errors and kills, two straight Huskie errors gave WMU the set and tied the match at the break.
The Broncos built off the second set and started the third with a 7-1 lead and rode it for the only relatively easy win all night. NIU only got back within five points twice, and closed within three at 23-20, but didn’t have enough to come all the way back.
Two aces from Gonzalez helped NIU begin the fourth set with a 4-0 lead, but it wouldn’t last as a back-and-forth battled ensued. The first team with a crack at set point was NIU after a Romo kill made it 24-23. NIU failed to stop the WMU attack and would do so on the next two chances at set point. Then, WMU flipped the table with two straight kills for a 27-26 lead. Roddy scored from the pin to negate match point. But WMU scored again on the next sequence and Angelos misfired to end a long, hard-fought set and match.
Roddy led NIU with 15 kills, while Angelos had 13 and senior middle Mary Kurisch (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem) had 12. With her 12 kills came Kurisch’s 1,000th career kill as she needed just one to reach the plateau and become the 19th member of NIU’s 1,000 Kill Club.
Defensively, junior Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) had a career-high 20 digs, but senior libero Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) led with 24. Walker’s 14th dig of the night gave her 1,000 for her career, making her the 15th member of NIU’s 1,000 Dig Club.
“This last weekend of play against two of the top teams in our conference helps us understand where we are at and helps us prepare for the battle we will have over the next week and a half,” Gooden said. “We will have to battle every single match, every single day to stay alive in the MAC Tournament.”
For more information on NIU volleyball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.