Zielinski taps into potential for Huskies

By Mike Romor

Volleyball’s Lauren Zielinski made it to NIU based purely on her limitless potential.

Zielinski, a redshirt freshman, sat out last season as part of recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum in her hitting shoulder that she injured before her senior season of high school.

Zielinski does not know of an instance that would have led to the injury, but once she found out exactly what was wrong, she elected to have surgery. The surgery came during an important part of the recruiting process.

“It was definitely more stressful,” Zielinski said. “I waited to have surgery longer just to get recruited again, and then once I finally had to have [surgery], I kept talking to [head coach] Ray [Gooden] and he kept telling me to just get better and I could come here. He said he’d make sure I was healthy and then go from there.”

Gooden was aware of Zielinski’s surgery and knew there would be a long recovery window, but he continued to pursue the promising 6-foot-4 middle blocker. Zielinski is the tallest player Gooden has recruited and is also the first he recruited and intentionally redshirted upon arrival.

Zielinski attributed her injury to flawed mechanics. It might seem like a simple solution to tweak mechanics, but after making the same motion thousands of time, changing Zielinski’s mechanics could have stalled the recovery progress.

Luckily for Gooden and Zielinski, that hasn’t been a glaring problem.

Gooden gambled on Zielinski based on her potential. So far, he seems to have made a great bet.

After two years and countless hours of rehabbing and recovering, Zielinski made it into NIU’s front row and has played in 15 of 16 matches this season, starting in three. She is fifth on the team in kills per set and fourth in blocks per set.

Being back on the court for actual competition has been the best part of the process for Zielinski.

“Even though you’re on the team, you still want to be part of the team and contribute,” Zielinski said. “It’s hard to watch and not do anything. I was extremely excited [for this season] and I couldn’t wait to get on the court and do whatever I could to help this team.”

Sophomore setter Alexis Gonzalez was part of the same incoming class as Zielinski and is close with the middle blocker. The two spent time together overseas during the European Global Challenge, where they worked toward becoming more comfortable with each other’s tendencies on the court.

Since their time at NIU, Gonzalez has seen the strength and quickness come back to Zielinksi and thinks there is even more potential for her teammate.

“She’s definitely improving a lot,” Gonzalez said. “When she gets over the ball to hit it, it’s an earthquake when it hits the ground. There’s so much power behind it. As she gains … game experience, since last year all she could do was practice, everything will start to slowly improve in that aspect of it, too.”

Zielinski’s court time has been ideal for Gooden. Between Zielinski and freshman Jenna Radtke, the absence of former Huskie Mary Kurisch has been taken in stride.

Although she has developed, adjusted and shown progress over the past year, Gooden is positive there is still plenty of untapped potential within Zielinski.

“Any time she gets a chance to play, she gets more experience,” Gooden said. “She’s been able to do that more since last spring after sitting out in the fall. All that has helped her to this point, but we feel that her ceiling is still very, very high.”