NIU Volleyball set to open 2022 with home tournament


Courtesy NIU Athletics

Then-freshman middle blocker Charli Atiemo leaps up for a hit over the net in a match against Eastern Michigan Universty on Oct. 1, 2021. Atiemo was named to the Mid-American Conference All-Freshman Team for her performance last season.

DeKALB — NIU women’s volleyball is hungry for another berth to the Mid-American Conference Tournament after getting a quick taste last season.

“We want to play in December because the best time of the year to play women’s volleyball is in December,” said Ray Gooden, head volleyball coach. “That’s always the mission.”

Volleyball began their preseason training camp Aug. 9, looking to improve upon their 16-13 record from last season. NIU slid into the 2021 Mid-American Conference as the last team of a six-team field. Their season ended in the quarterfinals round with a 3-0 defeat to Ohio University on Nov. 21.

Gooden said elements from last season now serve as a boost to finding success early this fall.

“2022 is a new story,” Gooden said following a practice on Aug. 12. “There are parts to this story that can help us have a better starting point than we did last year.”

Gooden also explained that 2022 is not better than 2021 in terms of the talent available on the roster, but rather the experience gained from last season.

“A lot of players last year were newer players, inexperienced players,” Gooden said. “There’s more experience now. They have a better understanding of what goes on.”

NIU brings back key pieces

The Huskies retained plenty of young talent going into their 2022 season. Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci and sophomore middle blocker Charli Atiemo return for their second seasons after being named to the MAC All-Freshman Team in 2021.

NIU is also bringing back veteran playmakers as senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski and junior setter Ella Mihacevich return for their third seasons in DeKalb. Jablonski enters as NIU’s reigning kills leader for the second year in a row and a 2021 All-MAC second team selection.

Senior outside hitters Brianna “Bina” Scuric and Kaitlyn “Kat” Bell round out the team’s veteran leadership. Both players have been members of the team since 2019

New year, new talent

Gooden spent part of the offseason replacing NIU’s recent departures, adding three freshmen and two transfers to the roster.

Volleyball’s latest incoming transfers are a pair of juniors in middle blocker/outside hitter Emily Dykes and middle blocker Sammi Lockwood. Dykes arrived on campus in the spring after spending two seasons at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. Lockwood comes from closer to home after the Cary native spent two years at the University of Notre Dame.

Among NIU’s incoming class of freshmen is outside hitter Nazli Güvener (naz-la guv-en-er), a natie of Ankara, Turkey. Güvener’s arrival marks a first for NIU volleyball as its first international player.

“That’s going to be a good experience for us,” Gooden said. “Not only for myself as a coach but also for our team. It’s nice to have a person from another walk of life that is able to share her experience with the group.”

The path to the MAC Tournament

NIU’s quest for another berth to the MAC Tournament will include a trio of tournaments, all located in the Midwest and one hosted at Victor E. Court.

Three of the notable matchups on NIU’s conference slate are spread throughout the month of October. NIU faces Bowling Green State University on Oct. 7 in a match against the 2021 conference runners-up. The Huskies then remain at home the following weekend for a two-match battle with the Ball State University Cardinals, the reigning conference champions, on Oct. 14 and 15.

The October schedule ends Oct. 29 with a trip to visit the Ohio Bobcats, who shut out the Huskies in the regular season last year and later knocked them out of playoff contention.

The Huskies had an opportunity to showcase their 2022 squad before the regular season at Saturday’s exhibition match against the University of Northern Iowa. NIU swept the Panthers 3-0.

“We always have confidence in our abilities,” Gooden said after Saturday’s match. “We know that we have a good start right now but we’re nowhere near the level we could run.”

The Huskies’ regular season opens Friday at Victor E. Court as NIU will host the Huskie Invitational, playing a trio of matches in two days. Admission for the game will be free to NIU students with a valid OneCard. Non-NIU students can purchase tickets to the tournament for $10 on the first day and $6 on the second day.