Volleball set for road trip

By Mike Romor

While it will be Homecoming for football, it will be home-going for volleyball.

NIU (11-7, 3-1 MAC) readies itself for a two-week road tilt starting at 6 p.m. Friday against Toledo. Toledo (9-9, 2-2 MAC) has been nothing short of awful over the past few years, but has already matched its conference win total from last season, when it finished 2-14.

Toledo’s nine wins are already more than last season’s eight, with a perfect 4-0 mark in five-setters.

The Rockets have been hit-or-miss this season with six of their nine losses coming in straight sets. Toledo just dropped its last match in straight sets to IPFW, a team NIU downed in four sets at home earlier this season.

Both of Toledo’s conference losses were against teams NIU defeated last weekend, EMU and CMU. Toledo did pull out a strong victory against Ball State, which is tied for the lead in the MAC West, proving the Rockets are capable of playing a higher level of volleyball than in the past.

“Toledo’s playing some great volleyball right now,” said head coach Ray Gooden. “They’ve really improved. They’re physical, they’re fast and very confident. They’re trending upward right now and playing pretty well.”

A major contributor to Toledo’s improvement has been senior outside hitter Lauren Rafdal, who leads the team in kills per set with 3.85, ranking third in the MAC. Her 254 kills make up 30 percent of the team’s kills.

NIU has not lost to Toledo since a five-set road defeat in 2009.

The Huskies may have a tougher time in their second game of the weekend, as they head to Ball State (15-4, 3-1) on Saturday. Ball State’s 15 wins trump its 14 from a season ago and it boasts the best overall record in the MAC West.

The Cardinals have won 12 of their last 13 contests. The loss came against Toledo last weekend, snapping an 11-match win streak.

Ball State’s loss to Toledo is somewhat surprising for a team which has swept all three of its other conference affairs.

Ball State averages a .243 hitting percentage as a team while holding opponents to a .141 mark. The Cardinals have also done a great job of starting out matches strong, winning 15 of 19 opening sets.

Their success comes with doubt, as the Cardinals teed off against a weak nonconference schedule and two of their conference wins have come against EMU and CMU.

Ball State looks to finally be healthy from last season, when it finished 7-9 in MAC play. Much is still left to be seen from this squad, which finished 12-4 in conference play two seasons ago.

“Ball State is always really good but [was] plagued with injuries last year,” Gooden said. “They have a hall of fame coach and a hall of fame program, and they’re doing some really good things. They’re playing at a level that we expect.”

Both matches this weekend are critical for volleyball heading forward this season. For one, NIU is locked in a three-way tie with Ball State and Western Michigan in the MAC West. Also, both of the Huskies’ opponents are looking to recover from finishing in the bottom two spots last year in the West.

“Every night’s going to be a battle, and we have to do our best to stay out of what I call the fray,” Gooden said. “There’s going to be a pool in the middle with a bunch of teams all in the mix. The difference between those teams is going to come down to sets, not even matches, so we need to stay on the positive side of that.”