Jablonski, Mihacevich reach career milestones during Ypsi road trip

Huskies control their own destiny after series sweep

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Alyssa Queen

Katie Jablonski (Left) and Francesca Bertucci high fiving before the team’s Saturday game against CMU. (Alyssa Queen | Northern Star)

By Skyler Kisellus, Sports Editor

DeKALB – NIU volleyball is on cusp of a Mid-American Conference Tournament berth after registering back-to-back wins over Eastern Michigan University in its final weekend series of the regular season.

The Huskies (17-10, 10-7 MAC) won each of their two matches against the EMU Eagles (5-24, 4-13 MAC) by a score of 3-1.

After entering the weekend on the outside looking in in the league standings, NIU now sits at No. 6 in the conference. This means that the Huskies would be the bottom seed in the tournament if the regular season ended now.

NIU flips the script

EMU entered the weekend with a pair of opportunities to spoil NIU’s chances at a postseason appearance. NIU was on the outside looking in for the postseason projections, sitting at No. 7 in the league standings and needing as many wins as possible.

Instead, NIU spoiled Eastern’s final home stand of the season. The Huskies capped off their final weekend series with a 3-1 defeat of the Eagles on Senior Day. EMU honored its four seniors, hitter Samantha Basham, defensive specialist Kamryn Stilwell, middle blocker Raeven Chase and hitter Krista Blakely, before the opening serve on Saturday.

Friday and Saturday’s matches had the same storyline. The Huskies took the first and second sets on both days before Eastern won set three. The Eagles ran out of steam in the fourth set as NIU proceeded to claim victory.

Huskies crack quadruple digits

Two Huskies reached major milestones in their volleyball careers over the weekend. Junior setter Ella Mihacevich reached 1,000 career assists with her 22nd and final assist in Friday’s match.

Senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski finished the weekend by reaching 1,000 career kills with her final kill of the weekend. Jablonski entered the weekend with 966 kills – 133 at her previous school, the University of New Hampshire, and 833 at NIU. She recorded 14 kills on Friday and 20 on Saturday.

“It’s awesome for anyone to reach a milestone, right?” NIU head volleyball coach Ray Gooden said. “So much of it comes from what our team has done over the season … Really happy for those young ladies for reaching that and we’re really happy for our group.”

A stat is just a number

Jablonski and Mihacevich both gave credit to the team for what it has accomplished so far this season.

“It’s a fun little accomplishment, but I’m just really proud of how we played this weekend,” Jablonski said. “Ella got her 1,000th assist too, which is crazy, and she helps me out a ton. It’s great that I have a great team that makes it easy for me.”

“A stat is just a stat for me,” Mihacevich said. “The only thing I really care about is the win column for us at the end of the season. I’m proud of myself, and I’m proud of my team for helping me get to 1,000 career assists; but at the end of the day, I don’t really care.”

Mihacevich acknowledged the harshness of her sentiment toward her achievement and asserted her competitive drive.

“I want to win,” Mihacevich said. I want to make the tournament. I want to be MAC champs, and if 1,000 assists gets us there, great, but I’m not in it for me, I’m in it for us.”

Saturday’s win marked NIU’s 17th victory of the season, surpassing its win total from last season.

Eagles make NIU earn it

Friday’s first two sets were hard fought. Scoring battles after each set went past 25 points. NIU won both sets by the same score of 26-24.

Bertucci attributed NIU’s early struggles to a lack of on-court communication brought on by the hushed environment around the court.

“The gym was very quiet, and there wasn’t a lot of fans, so everyone else – we were all very quiet,” Bertucci said. “Once we started talking and making our own energy, it was a lot better.”

NIU had an early edge over EMU in the first set, holding a 19-13 lead. The Eagles put together a rally that brought both sides to a 24-24 draw before NIU took the set, 26-24.

Eastern Michigan was first to reach 20 on the scoreboard (20-17) in the second set. NIU came back to tie the score at 22 and traded blows with EMU twice to bring another 24-24 tie. Nedic’s kill on set point gave NIU a 2-0 lead.

EMU played the frontrunner in Friday’s third set. The Eagles rolled their way to set point, up 24-20, by the time NIU had called its second timeout. Eastern Michigan closed out the set three rallies later to get its lone win of the match, 25-22.

The Huskies put the game away in the fourth set, powering their way to a 25-18 win in the set four to secure NIU’s first win of the weekend.

Different day, same result

Gooden said he was anticipating a battle with an Eastern team playing with a lot of energy in its final home stand.

“It’s senior weekend. The players are going to play hard for some of their players’ last home matches,” Gooden said.

NIU was successful in overcoming the charged emotions from EMU’s side of the net. The Huskies secured wins in the opening two sets of the match by scores of 25-22 and 25-12.

“I’m just really happy we took care of what we needed to,” sophomore middle blocker Charli Atiemo said. “Their seniors did great … I’m just thankful we didn’t let it kind of interfere with our own mojo or what we’re trying to do as a team.”

EMU showed its competitive side with a hard-fought scoring battle in the third set. The Eagles eventually prevailed, 25-23, asserting themselves as the weekend champions of the third set.

“We just got a little too comfortable in those third sets,” Jablonski said. “We, kind of, were waiting for them to make errors instead of just keeping consistency on our playing.”

The fourth set ended up being the most lopsided of the weekend. NIU scorned EMU with a dominant run that led to a 21-6 lead. The Eagles went on a brief scoring run to close the gap to 23-13. Jablonski called her own numbers with 19th and 20th kills of the day to end it.

A short turnaround for the final showdown

NIU will have three days before it returns to action at 5 p.m. CST Wednesday for its regular season finale against the Western Michigan University Broncos in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“We know Western,” Mihacevich said. “They’re crafty, they’re shotty, they’re a good ball control team.”

The Broncos are fresh off two-straight losses to Central Michigan University over the weekend. Both matches went to five sets and ended in 3-2 loss for WMU.

“We know that even though they have a tough two losses this weekend, they are not going to come at us any less on Wednesday,” Mihacevich said. “That’s a huge match for us. I think it’s going to be our play-in to the tournament.”