Volleyball set to spike into action on Friday

By Mike Romor

After a season filled with ups and downs, volleyball is ready to kick off what might be another roller coaster ride.

Ending on a disappointing loss in last season’s MAC Championship match, NIU looks to start out strong at home against some of the toughest competition it will see all season.

The first match of the annual NIU Invitational is at 7 p.m. Friday against Green Bay. In last year’s meeting between the two, NIU came out with a 3-1 victory. This year might be a little different, though.

NIU is adapting to life without former libero Amber Walker, who started each of the past three seasons. Senior Justine Schepler, one of many defensive specialists who may fill Walker’s spot, has had to adjust to a young group replacing the upperclassmen core from last season.

“It’s been challenging because I played with Sue [Hayes] and Amber [Walker] for a while, so it’s hard to be one of the only ones left with all newcomers in, but it’s gone really well,” Schepler said. “Our bump squad is getting along really well, which is what I wanted out of it.”

Another difference from last season is the Huskies had already played three matches before their match against Green Bay.

They are also going up against a team led by Michaela Franklin, who is making her head coaching debut.

The night will be a special one for Franklin and NIU coach Ray Gooden, since she made her Div. I coaching debut with NIU as part of his staff in 2006.

“It’s awesome for Michaela to have that opportunity after starting here,” Gooden said. “She’s going to do a great job. But ultimately it’s her team versus my team, not her versus me.”

Following up Friday night’s action, NIU will square off against Liberty, which won the Big South Championship last season and is coming off a 25-8 record, its sixth consecutive 20-win season.

Liberty comes in boasting Big South’s Player of the Year, Caroline Douglas.

Douglas, a redshirt sophomore, is the first player in her conference to be named both Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. She recorded 454 kills last year, ranking sixth on the school’s all-time list.

Douglas leads a team that has won six straight regular season conference titles and is the only team in the country to do so while also reaching six straight conference championship matches.

The invite comes to a close Saturday night in what might be the toughest match of the weekend for the Huskies.

NIU hosts Ohio State, ranked 23rd in the preseason AVCA Coaches Poll, in a reunion for Gooden, who graduated as a three-time All-Conference player for the Buckeyes.

The Huskies will have to play nearly perfect in order to compete with the Buckeyes, who are one of seven ranked Big Ten teams.

“We are going to try to do our best against those guys,” Gooden said. “We are going to get to see them a couple times first. Our team wants to do our best on our home court.”