Huskies endure mixed results at Popcorn Classic

Huskies sit at .500 after road opener in Valparaiso


Sean Reed

(Left to right) Francesca Bertucci, Nikolette Nedic, Ella Mihacevich, Sammi Lockwood and Emily Dykes celebrate a point scored in the second set against SDSU at Victor E. Court on Friday night. (Sean Reed | Northern Star)

DeKALB — A pair of losses on the final day of the Popcorn Classic Saturday saw NIU volleyball finish their first road tournament of the season with a 1-2 record.

The Huskies opened this weekend’s tournament with a 3-1 win over the Campbell University Fighting Camels on Friday. Senior outside hitter Brianna “Bina” Scuric stood out with a team-leading 14 kills and two service aces in the match.

Scuric credited her teammates for her success on the first day, namely the setting performance of junior setter Ella Mihacevich.

“I would not have been able to do it without my team,” Scuric said. “Ella did such a good job with her sets. It made it so much easier to see blocks and hit around them.”

Five sets were needed to determine the winner of Saturday morning’s matchup between NIU and the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Cougars. The Huskies won the second and third sets before falling 16-14 in the fifth.

Head coach Ray Gooden said the first match against the Cougars was hard for everybody.

“We started down that first set, won the next two, trying to stay at a high level for the fourth,” Gooden said. “We got caught in that fifth set. We just started off slow and we weren’t able to recover. We came close, but we weren’t able to finish it out.”

The 2022 Popcorn Classic concluded with a matchup between NIU and the tournament host, Valparaiso University Crusaders. The hosts proved themselves as the better team, winning the first two sets and securing victory in the fourth.

“You never want to have a happiness for losing,” Gooden said. “But I thought we played competitively against a really good Valpo team.”

Bina leads NIU past the Camels

NIU played the chaser at the beginning of the first set. Scuric’s first ace of the match later tied the score at 10. The two teams then engaged in a competitive scoring duel, tying at points 14 through 25. The Huskies pulled off a 27-25 win after back-to-back mistakes by Campbell.

NIU took the early advantage in the second set after building a 6-1 lead. Campbell played the chaser this time around. The Camels trailed by a small margin until drawing even with NIU at 18. A 5-0 scoring run by NIU put them in prime winning position, up 23-18. The Huskies secured the win with a service error by Campbell and a kill by Scuric. NIU won the set 25-19 and held a 2-0 match lead.

The third set appeared to be a repeat of the previous set as NIU kept in front of Campbell early on. With NIU up 18-13, the Camels went on a 9-3 run to gain a 22-21 lead. Both squads were tied at 22 and 23. A pair of Campbell kills gave the Camels their first win of the match.

Friday’s match concluded in the fourth set. The Huskies put together multiple scoring runs to get a 22-15 lead. Campbell attempted to close in, coming with four points of NIU. Scuric brought the Huskies to set point with her final kill. A ball handling error by the Camels finalized their own 25-19 defeat. NIU won its lone match of the day, 3-1.

Cougars hold off Huskies

SIUE struck first on the scoreboard before both sides exchanged scoring runs to end up tied at 13. SIUE put together pairings of 2-0 and 3-0 runs to win the set, 25-20.

The Huskies shot off to an 11-1 start in the following set. NIU kept its foot on the gas from there, maintaining at least seven points of separation throughout. A string of four kills from as many Huskies gave NIU a 25-11 blowout win.

Both teams kept up with each other for the first 14 rallies of the third set. NIU’s ensuing 7-1 run put them ahead, 14-8. The Cougars were unable to keep up, allowing NIU to eventually take a 25-17 win.

The fourth set saw SIUE get to a hot start with a 9-2 lead. NIU roared back to tie at 10 and again at 14. The Cougars struck with an 8-1 scoring to put them three points away from a win, 22-15. Two-straight NIU attack errors brought the game to set point. SIUE won the set and tied the match thanks to a kill by sophomore middle blocker Priscilla Jones.

Scoring remained competitive from the get-go in the fifth set. The Crusaders and Huskies kept each other close throughout, the largest margin being four points. Both sides tied at 14 before Cougars sophomore outside hitter Ainsley Ranstead gave SIUE a 16-14 victory with back-to-back kills.

NIU falls to host in tournament finale

The opening set proved to be the most competitive of the match between NIU and Valpo. Both teams battled beyond the traditional winning mark of 25 points. The score was tied at 31 before the Crusaders sealed the deal with an attack error by Scuric and a kill by junior outside hitter Gretchen Kuckkan.

That first set was a lot of fun, Gooden said. “Both sides were really trying to get the edge.”

The second set also went to Valpo, 25-21. NIU got back within reach by claiming the third set, 25-18. Valparaiso shut down the Huskies’ hopes of victory with a 25-15 win in the fourth and final set.

Junior middle blocker Sammi Lockwood led the Huskies with 40 kills in the tournament. Senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski came second with 36 kills.

Preparing for the tournament ahead

The Huskies left Valparaiso with a 3-3 record after consecutive losses. NIU will have five days to regroup before another road trip to Kansas City, Missouri, for the KC Roos Classic.

“We’re going to get some rest,” Gooden said. “We’re going to continue working on being good together and learning how to really embrace the challenge.”

The University of Missouri-Kansas City Roos are first on the Huskies’ competition slate. The two teams are scheduled to play at 7 p.m. Friday. The match will be available on the Roos All-Access page.