Huskies topple Broncos in five-set thriller

NIU volleyball defends home court, extends win streak to seven

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Mingda Wu

Junior right side hitter Emily Dykes jumps for an attack during Tuesday night’s Mid-American Conference matchup between the NIU Huskies and the Western Michigan University Broncos. NIU bested the Broncos 3-2 in five sets to remain undefeated in conference play and extend its consecutive wins streak to seven games. (Mingda Wu | Northern Star)

DeKALB – All five sets were needed to determine the victor of Tuesday night’s Mid-American Conference matchup between NIU volleyball (10-3, 3-0 MAC) and the Western Michigan University Broncos (10-5, 2-1 MAC) at Victor E. Court.

The Huskies successfully defended their home court with a 3-2 win after a short turnaround from last weekend’s pair of wins over the University of Akron. NIU took Tuesday’s first and third sets by scores of 27-25 and 25-14. They later secured a 15-9 win in the fifth set.

“The Huskies have been to battle,” head coach Ray Gooden said. “We were able to win this round of the battle with one of the best teams in our league.”

NIU came out on the winning side of three challenges in three straight rallies during the match’s deciding set. Gooden initiated two of the challenges.

“Those were great,” senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski said. “It’s funny, usually we lose all of our challenges. It was nice Ray had enough trust in us to listen to us and challenge them. We were pretty confident about them. That was just another fuel to the fire that gave us the good finish.”

Huskies thrive in the box score

Three Huskies recorded double-doubles on the night. Jablonski and senior outside hitter Brianna “Bina” Scuric combined for 27 kills and 29 digs. Junior setter Ella Mihacevich tallied a season-high 55 assists and 17 digs. The trio was also three of five Huskies to have double-digit kills.

“It speaks to what our team is trying to preach, which is balance,” Gooden said. “We can’t have one particular person winning for us. Many people did many different things to help us find success tonight.”

Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci led all players in the game with 42 digs. NIU as a whole tallied 100 digs on the night.

“It’s fun to watch Franki Bertucci play,” Gooden said. “She does things that just makes you happy about watching volleyball.”

A meeting of familar foes

The last meeting between the Huskies and Broncos resulted in NIU’s win in last year’s regular season finale on Nov. 17, 2021. NIU took down the Broncos for a 3-1 win thanks to the efforts of the Huskie defense. The Broncos were held to a .173 hitting percentage in that matchup. NIU recorded 96 digs and nine blocks. WMU led the all-time series, 34-32, heading into Tuesday’s match.

WMU’s first-set loss served as their first time losing a set since their Sept. 16 bout with Bradley University. NIU’s 25-21 loss in the second set marks its first set loss since they dropped the opening set of the NIU Invitational on Sept. 16 against the University of Rhode Island.

The Huskies were tasked with containing WMU players like senior outside hitter Maggie King and junior setter Logan Case. King’s 3.80 kills per set and Case’s 11.59 assists per set led the MAC in their respective categories heading into Tuesday.

NIU held WMU to a .171 hitting percentage across all five sets. King recorded 11 kills, the second-most on the Broncos’ box score. Case had 52 of WMU’s 58 assists. Both players had double-doubles, each being their fifth of the season.

“They’re great players,” Gooden said. “We’ve got some bonafide teams in our division, let alone the conference. For us to be able to end this home stretch on a positive, beating a division team, doing it in front of a really nice crowd (277), it’s just really good for our group.”

A battle to end the home stretch

NIU opened the first set with an early 4-0 lead. The Broncos quickly got back into the game with a scoring surge that turned into a battle for points. WMU held the 15-13 advantage into the media timeout. The Huskies chipped away at their deficit to tie the game at 21. A block and kill by NIU allowed them to reach set point, up 24-22.

A pair of kills by King tied the set at 24. A tradeoff of kills created another tie. The Huskies’ finishing blows came in the form of kills by Jablonski and sophomore middle blocker Atiemo. NIU took the set 27-25.

Neither team was able to build an overwhelming advantage to open the second set. The Broncos began to take control after about midway through the set. WMU held a five-point lead at the media timeout, 15-10.

Down 19-14, NIU battled back a two-point deficit, down 22-20. The Broncos returned with a pair of kills to get to set point. NIU mustered a final kill by Atiemo before WMU sophomore middle blocker Madison Merz delivered the set-winning kill. NIU’s 25-21 loss marks its first set loss since dropping the opening set of the NIU Invitational on Sept. 16 against the University of Rhode Island.

That was probably the most fun game of volleyball I’ve played since I started here.”

— Senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski

The Huskies dashed to a 7-1 at the beginning of set No. 3, including a quartet of kills by junior right side hitter Emily Dykes. The Broncos’ timeout after 7-1 helped shift the momentum in their favor. NIU called its own timeout after back-to-back attack errors brought the score to 12-8.

The timeout helped swing the momentum back to the Huskies. NIU climbed out to a 22-14 lead. A series of WMU blunders spelled their own defeat after four-straight attack errors gave NIU the third set, 25-14.

Tuesday’s fourth set was a firefight as neither team allowed the other to create a large margin. The score tied 10 times. The Broncos eventually formed a 23-19 lead late in the set. A WMU kill brought set point. A Jablonski attack error gave the Broncos the set 25-19 and forced the fifth set.

Gooden credited the Broncos for their ability to create problems for the Huskies and bring the match to five sets.

“They had two really good serving rotations out there,” Gooden said. “No. 19 (King) and No. 12 (Case) did a really good job from the serving line. It really put us under pressure.”

Junior right side hitter Emily Dykes tips the ball over the net during Tuesday’s match versus Western Michigan University. Dykes led all players in the match with 19 kills. (Mingda Wu)

The fifth set began with a blow-for-blow between the MAC foes. NIU later took itself out to a 10-7 lead. The next three rallies saw a pair of NIU challenges with a WMU challenge in between. NIU won all three to go up 13-7. Atiemo’s ensuing kill set up match point. The game-winner was the result of WMU’s 26th attack error of the match to give NIU the set 15-9.

“That was probably the most fun game of volleyball I’ve played since I started here,” Jablonski said.

Tuesday’s win also cemented a new pre-game tradition for Dykes.

“I’m going to drink Dunkin’ before every game now,” Dykes said.

The win allowed NIU to end Tuesday night atop the standings for the MAC West division. The Huskies have yet to lose a match since their double losses on the final day of the Popcorn Classic on Sept. 3. WMU’s loss drops them to fourth in the West division standings.

What’s next

NIU will have an opportunity to add to their win streak during their upcoming road trip to the Empire State. The Huskies will play the University at Buffalo Bulls for a two-game series on Friday and Saturday at Alumni Arena in Buffalo, New York.

Friday’s game will be carried on ESPN+ starting at 6 p.m. CT. The second game on Saturday will be available on the UB Bull’s YouTube channel beginning at 1 p.m. CT. Live statistics for both matches will be available on SIDEARM Sports.

Regular season home volleyball games are free to attend at Buffalo.