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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

COLUMN: In defense of NIU volleyball

Kisellus: Cut the 2023 Huskies some slack
Tim Dodge
NIU junior defensive specialist/libero Jada Cerniglia serves the ball during a Sept. 8 match against DePaul University during the DePaul Invitational at McGrath-Phillips Arena in Chicago. Cerniglia has nine service aces on the 2023 season, tied for second place on the Huskies. (Tim Dodge | Northern Star)

Two wins, 10 losses and rock bottom in the MAC standings. Not a great start to a season by any stretch of the imagination. 

That is where the NIU volleyball team stands through 12 matches, all against non-conference competition.

This column was originally focused on providing takeaways from NIU’s recent run at the UNI Tournament. Instead, I found it necessary to provide much-needed context to the Huskies’ sluggish start to the season. The numbers may not look great on paper, but cut the Huskies a break.


NIU is in its inaugural season of first-year head coach Sondra Parys’ tenure. The 2023 season is also Parys’ first at the helm of a Division I program.

Since taking the job in mid-December, Parys has been plenty occupied with the responsibilities of her new role. She’s spent the past several months filling out her coaching staff, bringing in new players, establishing recruiting connections and planning a wedding to boot.

The staff has spent a considerable amount of time working with the players to break old habits while implementing and reinforcing new ones. Parys has also sent out multiple starting lineups this season to see which player combinations work best.

On top of having a new head coach for the first time in over two decades, the program also has seven newcomers making up nearly half the roster.

Expecting instant success from such a revamped program in the first year was and still is unreasonable. Wins are fine and always welcome, but expecting the squad to be MAC contenders in Year 1 is wishful thinking.

This is one of those situations where the saying “trust the process,” cliche as it may be, holds a lot of weight. 


Though recent results may not reflect this, NIU has players on its roster that can compete at a high level.

A quick glance at the NIU backcourt will show how junior libero Crew Hoffmeier has excelled in her first season as the Huskies’ starting libero. Hoffmeier has a MAC-best 249 digs and 5.19 digs per set, a mark that well exceeds her average of 3.23 digs per set in two years at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the front row, standout junior middle blocker Charli Atiemo has continued to showcase her prowess on offense and defense. The 2022 All-MAC Second Team selection is seventh in the conference in both hitting percentage and blocks.

Toss in the Huskies’ setting tandem of senior Ella Mihacevich and junior Sophie Hurt and up-and-coming outside hitters such as junior Nikolette Nedic and sophomore Nazli Güvener, and you have a solid core that can create problems for league adversaries.


One can admonish the Huskies’ preseason performance all they want, but it’s important to consider the strength of NIU’s non-conference schedule.

The NIU defense was frequently charged with slowing down some of the more potent offenses in the country. In four matches this season, NIU has confronted three squads who are currently among the top 25 nationally in kills per set – the University of Northern Iowa, Davidson College and Chicago State University.

Tacking on the matches against the University of Illinois from the Big Ten – a highly-regarded conference in college volleyball – and the nationally-ranked University of Dayton makes for at least five quality losses for NIU this season .

Additionally, the Huskies have battled against six of the nation’s top-50 hitters in attacks per set. Five of those players had the match-high in kills during their respective matchups against NIU.

Non-conference play is hard enough on its own due to the sheer unpredictability of facing off against atypical opponents. Those types of foes might run different schemes, have stronger rosters and/or play at a different tempo.

Pitting a new-look team against foes of that nature was more or less intended to prepare NIU for its annual spell against the MAC and the fierce competition that comes with it. It’s better to work out the kinks during preseason rather than MAC play, where wins and losses hold more weight in postseason consideration.


The first 12 matches of 2023 have revealed a lot about the Huskies, but there will be more to discover once they undergo MAC play.

If the lackluster results persist into the next few seasons, I’m happy to revisit my stance. But for now, those who might be itching to pull out pitchforks should keep them holstered.

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