Five takeaways from Volleyball non-conference play

By Khobi Price

The volleyball team wrapped up its non-conference schedule with a 2-13 record. The Huskies defeated the University of Toledo Rockets Friday and the Ball State University Cardinals Saturday at Victor E. Court to kick off their Mid-American Conference contests.

The 63 sets NIU has played has provided insight about the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Here are five takeaways from the volleyball team’s play so far.

1. Offense lacks firepower

The offense has made significant strides since the beginning of the season; however, scoring points is still the team’s main weakness.

“It is connection,” Head Coach Ray Gooden said. “We have two first year setters in our gym trying to connect with hitters that do not have a lot of experience. Every week there is a learning curve, and we think we are making steps from it each week.”

The team ranks No. 10 in hitting percentage, No. 11 in kills per set and No. 11 in assists per set among the 12 MAC teams.

There is not a third option behind senior middle blocker Meg Wolowicz, who is No. 2 in the MAC in kills per set, and sophomore outside hitter Jori Radtke, who is consistently depended upon to finish an offensive sequence; no other Huskie averages more than 1.3 kills per set.

NIU displayed offensive improvements during its match against Toledo, tallying 42 kills on a season-high .253 hitting percentage en route to a sweep over the Rockets. The Huskies followed up their season-best performance by notching 56 kills on a .194 hitting percentage vs. the Cardinals marking the third time they recorded a hitting percentage above .190 in back-to-back contests.

If the volleyball team wants to improve its conference play outlook, it will need to experience an uptick in reliable offensive production.

2. The roster is versatile

NIU’s roster is stacked with almost 40 percent of players listed as middle blockers. It has two setters in sophomore setter Amanda Krahl and first year setter Grace Balensiefer, who receive consistent playing time.

The overlap in positional talent is not an issue because the players are adaptable. Oftentimes, Gooden will play Krahl and Balensiefer at the same time or will have up to four players listed as middle blockers on the court together.

“There are just situations we are not really used to,” Gooden said. “Meg Wolowicz, Jori Radtke, [sophomore libero] Miranda Karlen, they all have experience. And Meg has the most, but she is playing a brand new position so it is new for her. The other guys are not used to being in those positions on a regular basis. I attribute some of it to that.”

Despite being listed as middle blocker on the roster, Wolowicz changed positions to an outside hitter. Gooden said the alteration came out of necessity and was a move he and Wolowicz contemplated for years.

“A lot of it is just a need for us to find points in that position,” Gooden said. “The situation presented itself, and we thought we would try a little bit to kind of see if [Wolowicz] could do it on occasion, but then we realized the more she does it the better she will be.”

Gooden said the change allowed Wolowicz to be involved in more situations, and she has made the most of it. She nearly doubled her attacks per set from the 2017 campaign from 6.76 attacks per set to 11.93 attacks per set during the 2018 campaign. Wolowicz is No. 1 in the MAC in kills per set with 4.15 kills.

Wolowicz’s transition has opened up opportunities for other Huskies; freshman middle blocker Angie Gramos, sophomore middle blocker Kennedy Wallace and redshirt senior middle blocker Chrystal McAlpin; players who have all increased their blocks per set from the 2017 season.

3. Team is dependent on young talent

Ten of the volleyball team’s 15 roster spots are occupied by freshmen and sophomores. Often times, the Huskies will have a lineup on the court featuring one or zero upperclassmen. Before the season, Gooden said he wanted his younger players to make an immediate impact, and they have lived up to his wishes.

“All of those kids have a chance right away to help us have an impact,” Gooden said, according to a July 23 Northern Star article. “Hopefully they can feel comfortable to play at their level, feel confident about their volleyball and continue to help us get where we want to get to, which is hopefully to compete for a MAC championship.”

Balensiefer has taken over the starting setter spot and is No. 8 in assists per set in the MAC. Freshman middle blocker Jasmine Kemp leads the team in blocks per set and is No. 9 in this category in the MAC.

“I feel great about [my play],” Kemp said. “I am learning, and I have to keep taking that into account when I get frustrated. I think I am on the right track, and I have a great environment to keep learning in too.”

Radtke has adjusted well to her increased role within the offense. She has tallied 3.33 kills per set on a .151 hitting percentage, both improvements from the 2017 campaign. Sophomore libero Miranda Karen is No. 7 in the MAC in digs per set with 4.62.

Krahl has been a steady contributor with 3.05 assists and 1.56 digs per set and allows for the team to play with two setters at once.

4. Defense is solid but not good enough to make up for offense

Defense has its highs and lows; they rank No. 7 in blocks and digs per set in comparison to other MAC teams.

NIU does an admirable job of contesting opposing team’s kill attempts at the net. Its defensive issues occur during extended sequences when opponents become creative with attacks.

“We have to handle chaos better,” Gooden said. “When guys go up there and pick up a big swing on us, I think we do a solid job. When they move the ball around, have adjustments in their speed or tempo, we have to do a better of identifying that and then making the proper reads.”

The Huskies are last in opponent hitting percentage and kills allowed per set in the MAC. Their offensive shortcomings allow for opponents to bend their defense until it eventually breaks during a sequence.

NIU will adjust better to change in tempos and speeds as the younger plays gain more experience and its chemistry develops. In this case, a more efficient offense could also be the Huskies best defense.

5. Team struggles closing out sets

The volleyball team has too many lapses of poor play where they struggle to score points, allowing opponents to gain significant leads or complete comebacks.

McAlpin said the Huskies have gaps where they will not consistently play at the level they are capable of and allow the other team to gain an advantage against them.

The Huskies are 0-4 in contests that go five sets. They have constantly gone through lulls where opponents will go on scoring runs, which stems from their inefficiencies on offense. While these scoring droughts are not the sole reason for NIU’s struggles, they make it difficult to win games.

“I never say that is the reason why the loss happened, but when you start off a volleyball match you do want to have that advantage coming out strong, get the other team on their toes and make them uneasy,” McAlpin said. “Starting off strong and having that push of points at the beginning is nice to have.”