NIU volleyball falls to Central Michigan in MAC Championship


Meghan Connell, Northern Star file photo-Mary Kurisch dives for a ball in a game earlier this season. Sunday, for the second straight year. the Huskies fell in the MAC Championship game, losing 3-2 to Central Michigan.

By Mike Romor

Sunday’s MAC Championship match proved to NIU volleyball that history can repeat itself.

In a nail-biting championship match, Central Michigan upset the top-seeded Huskies in five grueling sets, 25-21, 25-22, 21-25, 23-25 and 15-11.

NIU (27-6, 14-2 MAC) finished second in the tournament for the second straight year and watched its 15-match winning streak come to an end.

Both Lauren Wicinski and Kristin Hoffman were named to the All-Tournament team at the end of the championship match.

Hoffman led the tournament in assists and had a match-high 62 assists to go along with eight digs in the crushing loss. Libero Amber Walker led the Huskies with 17 digs on the day.

Wicinski had a match-high 20 kills, while also digging 12 balls and posting two aces. Senior Allison McGlaughlin turned in a great all-around performance for the Huskies, also recording a double-double with 17 kills and 12 digs with a .316 hitting percentage.

“I think our teamwork really improved [throughout the match],” McGlaughlin said. “Our talking improved. [CMU] is really energetic and it helped them a lot today.”

CMU (18-12, 7-9 MAC) entered the tournament as the sixth seed, but roared past Western Michigan in the opening round and defending champion Ohio in the semifinals with back-to-back sweeps. After losing both regular season contests to NIU, the Chippewas were lifted by confidence and overwhelming energy in their first conference championship win in program history. It was also the program’s first appearance in the championship since 1982 and granted them a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

“Our team was just on a mission this week,” said CMU coach Erik Olson in a post-match interview. “It’s just amazing how focused our kids were.”

Kaitlyn Schultz and Kelly Maxwell all earned All-Tournament honors for the Chippewas. Schultz was named the tournament’s MVP. Sunday’s performance showed that both players deserved the recognition.

Schultz, who was nominated to the All-MAC first team, was about as efficient as possible, netting 15 kills while hitting .500, while Maxwell ran CMU’s offense to perfection, posting 59 assists. Maxwell also chipped in 12 digs and two aces.

CMU’s Kaitlyn McIntyre also largely contributed in the upset victory, nailing back-to-back kills to end the match. The freshman, who was named to the All-MAC Freshman team, finished with a team-leading 19 kills and a .385 hitting percentage.

“[McIntyre] did a really good job,” Gooden said. “She was the one that scored points at critical times for them. Hat’s off to her and her team today.”

CMU established its presence early and often at the net. The Chippewas found early leads in the first two sets that they never relinquished, while setting the tone with emotions pouring out after every point. CMU outperformed NIU in nearly every facet of the game.

“I know we blocked well, certainly in the first two sets,” Olson said. “That was certainly a key; that’s how you beat Northern.”

The Chippewas out-blocked NIU 13 to 4 and posted 69 digs to the Huskies 59. Strong defense translated into easy offense, as CMU hit .321 as a team while holding NIU to a .216 hitting percentage, well below its season average of .284.

Having its back to the ropes at the intermission, NIU fought hard to win the third and fourth sets. McGlaughlin fueled the Huskies throughout the two games, combining powerful kills and clutch digs while trying to give the Huskies momentum.

The energy of CMU was nearly impossible to match, though, and every time NIU found itself on a roll the Chippewas had an answer. In the final set, CMU outhit NIU .500 to .100 and committed only one attack error to NIU’s four.

“The story of the night for us was that we just couldn’t get ‘that’ play,” Gooden said. “We couldn’t get that bounce or whatever it was. Every time we made a little run, something would happen where it would just slow us at that critical point.”

NIU will come home for its final match against Marquette Saturday.