TOLEDO, OHIO | The year before Ray Gooden became NIU head volleyball coach, the Huskies won the Mid-American Conference Tournament in a 3-0 defeat of Ball State. The year was 2001, in which the Huskies went 24-6, with a 15-3 MAC record.
Nine years later, the Huskies (27-7 overall, 11-5 MAC) got back to the championship match, only to lose in a three-set bout with Ohio.
For the seventh consecutive year, the Bobcats (20-11, 10-6) have played Sunday afternoon in the championship match. With the win, the Bobcats have executed a three-peat under third-year head coach Ryan Theis. Going 3-0 in each of its three matches this weekend, Ohio matched what the Huskies were the last to do since that 2001 MAC Tournament.
“Going into the final I thought it was anyone’s game,” Theis said. “[NIU’s] offense had been clicking; we call them the ‘kill factory.’ Defensively if we could block, block touch the ball and dig—if they can’t kill it we could take advantage.”
Theis summed up the match in that statement as Ohio put the block on the Huskies, gathering 14 block assists, three solo blocks and 10 team blocks.
The Huskies were led by newly crowned MAC Player of the Year Lauren Wicinski. The freshman began the day for either team, earning the first kill off an assist from junior setter Kristin Hoffman. Wicinski finished the day with 15 kills on a .225 hitting percentage.
The first set was a back-and-forth battle between the Bobcats’ blockers and the outside hitters of the Huskies. With 10 of the Bobcats block assists coming in the first set, the Huskies had trouble finding the hardwood, eventually losing 25-21.
In the second, again Wicinski started the rally scoring with a kill to the back court. Middle blocker Meghan Romo earned a kill to put the Huskies up 6-2, but Ohio came back to tie at 11 on an attack error by middle blocker Mary Kurisch.
“We came close in that second set,” Gooden said of the 26-24 loss. “We just couldn’t get the break that we needed. They put a lot of pressure on us. And at times we put pressure back on them.”
Coming out of the break down 2-0, the Huskies battled to a 6-5 lead before knotting it at 11. The Bobcats went up 15-12 on a several good blocks and kills in what appeared to be a match slipping away. Junior outside hitter Allison McGlaughlin got a kill out of the timeout to make it 15-13. But that was as close as the Huskies would get before losing the set and match 25-17.
“Coming into this game, we had nothing to lose,” Hoffman said. “We just wanted to be in the moment and enjoy it. The fact that we got here is a true testament to Maddie and our coaches. They’ve provided great leadership to us this season. It showed through throughout the match as well.”
Gooden expressed the level of commitment his players have shown and was disappointed in the shadow the loss may have cast on the season.
“The unfortunate part is that this match is going to define so much of the year and it really shouldn’t,” he said. “This year has been nothing short of amazing of what we’ve done and accomplished.”