Volleyball halfway through MAC play

By Khobi Price

The volleyball team bounced back from disappointing preseason play with a 5-3 record start to Mid-American Conference play midway through its MAC contests. The Huskies are No. 3 in the MAC West Division standings and No. 5 in the overall MAC standings after falling to the Buffalo Bulls in five sets Saturday.

With 10 of 15 roster spots occupied by first years and sophomores, NIU has been dependent on young talent for success. Before the season started, Head Coach Ray Gooden said he wanted the younger players to make an immediate impact and so far they have fulfilled expectations.

Sophomore outside hitter Jori Radtke is No. 6 in the MAC in kills per set with 3.44. Freshman setter Grace Balensiefer has started every set during the 2018 campaign and is No. 9 in assists per set in the MAC.

Sophomore libero Miranda Karlen is in the top-10 in the MAC in both service aces and digs per set. Freshman middle blocker and DeKalb native Jasmine Kemp is .02 blocks per set away from being in the top-10 of the MAC in blocks per set.

The contributions of the young players in addition to production of veterans make this year’s volleyball team dynamic. Senior middle blocker Meg Wolowicz is No. 2 in the MAC in kills per set, redshirt senior middle blocker Chrystal McAlpin is No. 8 in the MAC in blocks per set and junior Amanda Krahl has started matches in a double-setter lineup with Balensiefer.

“We’re a force to be reckoned with,” junior middle blocker Brinkley Milbrath said. “I think we have our moments where we’re out there and going after teams, working together and finding that sweet spot. If we continue to do that, we’ll be unstoppable.”

The Huskies defeated Ball State University, who is in first place in the MAC West Division, for the Cardinals lone conference loss of the season. Milbrath said NIU’s chemistry has been a plus and everyone has latched onto the positivity aspect of this season’s team.

NIU has had runs where its offense looked like a well-oiled machine. The Huskies tallied a .256 hitting percentage during their first three MAC matches, capped off by season-bests of 64 kills, 58 assists and a .325 hitting percentage versus the Western Michigan University Broncos Sept. 27.

“I definitely think we can be one of the best teams in the MAC,” Radtke said. “When we’re doing great, we’re awesome, but when we get into those little lulls it’s iffy. If we can stay in the highs, then we can be the best team in the MAC.”

The Huskies have experienced letdowns. They had back-to-back games of recording sub .110 hitting percentages against the Miami University RedHawks and the Eastern Michigan University Eagles.

Gooden said NIU’s lulls of inconsistent play are because of the team’s overall lack of experience which stems from a dip in self confidence when confronting unfamiliar situations.

He said there are situations in which the Huskies intuitions are not seasoned enough to maintain a challenge to the best of their abilities and they don’t stay in the moment; they think too far behind or too far ahead.

“There’s times when we have a chance to do something and we don’t use the gifts that help us as opposed to our instincts,” Gooden said. “Sometimes our instincts aren’t experienced enough to manage [a situation] we need to.”

He said the difference in knowing how to manage a spot or situation in a contest could have been the difference between the Huskies defeating Buffalo 15-13 in the fifth set of the match or their eventual 17-15 loss to the Bulls.

Gooden said the team’s authentic desire to be good is its unique characteristic. He said the Huskies stay in it together even in the face of adversity and they’ve done a good job of competing.

“There’s enough wanting to be good,” Gooden said. “It keeps people driven to continue on. Now we have to keep staying in that moment right now so we don’t allow other distractions to get in the way.”

The Huskies are going to need that desire during the last half of conference play. They will embark on a five-game road trip starting Friday against the Kent State University Golden Flashes and concludes with a match versus the Western Michigan Broncos Oct. 31.

“Playing away is hard no matter what, but it also gives us a chance to really come together,” Milbrath said. “You really have to be a cohesive unit when you’re on the road. You have to fight and it’ll really help us get that grit that we’re really looking for. The MAC tournament is away. We’re not going to be here, so it’s a little bit of a practice. That’s our ultimate goal; to get to that MAC tournament.”

They will close out the season with a 3-game homestead beginning with a match against the Bowling Green State University Falcons and the Eagles, who are two of the top teams in the MAC.

Similar to last season, how NIU finishes the last half of conference play will make or break its postseason aspirations.

The Huskies are two games out of first place in the conference, but two games away from being No. 9 in the MAC standings. NIU closed out the 2017 campaign with a 3-5 record. If the team won one more contest, it would have qualified for the MAC tournament.

The margin of error becomes thinner as the end of the regular season comes to a close. The volleyball team will need to reduce its lapses to capitalize on the talent of this year’s team and avoid missing the MAC tournament for the second consecutive season.

Gooden said he won’t compare this year’s team to the 2017 team. He said each team has its own story and this one is still being written.

“The good news is the story isn’t finished,” Gooden said. “There’s a lot more to go. And that’s the cool thing; that this story is not finished.”