Bertucci anchoring NIU’s bumper squad

Nedic: “If the ball goes to Franki, we know it’s going to be a perfect pass.”


Marco Sotelo Avila

Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci serves during NIU’s Mid-American Conference opener against the University of Akron Zips on Sept. 23. The Huskies earned their first win of league play after beating Akron 3-0. (Marco Sotelo Avila | Northern Star)

Francesca “Franki” Bertucci stands out in NIU volleyball, whether it be the jersey she dons on game days or her playmaking abilities from the back row.

Bertucci, a sophomore libero and defensive specialist for the Huskies, continues to build on her freshman campaign from last year that ended with a selection to the Mid-American Conference’s All-Freshman Team.

Chicago native stays close to home

Bertucci’s recruitment began during her freshman year of high school at De La Salle Institute, a private school in Chicago. NIU extended an offer during her junior year.

“I was just kind of waiting around because I didn’t really know where I wanted to go,” Bertucci said.

Her decision to stay close to home was influenced by a new addition to her family later in her high school career.

“My mom ended up having another baby,” Bertucci said. “I wanted to stay close to home to be with her and stuff. I just thought this (NIU) would be the best option to me.”

Bertucci’s academic performance also limited her college options.

“My grades were also another reason that I couldn’t get into some bigger schools. NIU told me it wouldn’t be a problem. Now I’m here and my grades are way better than they were in high school.”

Bertucci finished the Spring 2022 semester with a 4.0 GPA.

When it comes to recruiting, NIU has a certain set of criteria they look for in their next liberos.

“We’re looking for stability and steadiness,” Gooden said. “Someone who wants to get better and ideally someone who wants to have control of the court in a way that’s commanding and not demanding.”

Shaking the nerves

Bertucci was able to make an impact as an immediate starter. She said that the nerves that come with being pressed into action early in her college career had an impact on performance early in the season.

Things began to turn around for the then-freshman during the midpoint of the 2021 season.

“I kind of opened up and it was easier for me to come out and play and not be nervous and freaking out,” Bertucci said. “I feel like my team really helps me out, especially me and Charli (Atiemo) being freshman starters. The coaching staff and our whole team was kind of there for us and really helped us through it.”

Bertucci’s longtime teammate, outside hitter Nikolette Nedic, said that Bertucci’s nerves aren’t always noticeable.

“She sometimes does have nerves, but she’s very good at hiding it,” Nedic said. “I will never know when she’s nervous unless she tells me. She’s always so calm and collected.”

Serving as the Huskies’ libero, a position commonly seen as the best passer on a team, comes with challenges of its own.

“There’s always pressure,” Bertucci said. “If I make a mistake, I feel like people are like ‘oh my god. She should’ve got that. She’s libero. She’s the best passer.’”

Familiar faces in new places

Bertucci’s arrival at NIU was not short of familiar faces. She came into college last season with a freshman class that also included Nedic and middle blocker Stella Barr. Bertucci has played with both for the past 13 years.

Nedic described Bertucci’s role as a crucial one on the team.

“Obviously, the leader of the court is the setter,” Nedic said. “But she’s (Bertucci) kind of the behind-the-scenes leader. She’s always telling people where to hit, what to do. Everyone can count on her to give them advice.”

Nedic and Bertucci first crossed paths at 1st Alliance Volleyball Club, a volleyball club based out of Chicago. They played with the 1st Alliance for a few years before transitioning to a different club named Adversity Volleyball Club.

“I’ve just known her for so long,” Nedic said. “I feel like her still being on my team now still since I’ve only played volleyball with her my whole life. It just brought so much chemistry and she helps me so much on the court, mentally and physically. I know I can count on her for whatever.”

A remarkable start in college ball

Bertucci racked up 520 digs during her freshman campaign last season, the ninth-most in a single season in program history. Her 4.86 digs per set also went down as the sixth-most in a single season for the Huskies.

She has earned MAC West Defensive Player of the Week honors twice in each of her first two seasons. Her latest honors came in back-to-back weeks after being announced as the West Division’s Defensive Player of the Week on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19.

All-arounder on and off the court

As is the case with most players on a volleyball court, players are required to respond to rapid changes as they happen.

In a typical rally, the libero makes first contact with the ball on a dig. The setter will then play off with a set to a third player, who must attempt an attack.

In the event that the setter plays the first ball, the libero is called up to play the second ball. This is because of an NCAA rule that states, “A player may not contact the ball with two separate and consecutive motions,” according to the NCAA’s 2022 and 2023 Women’s Volleyball Rules Book. This scenario is also considered to be “out-of-system.”

“If the ball goes to Franki, we know it’s going to be a perfect pass and then we have all options to run,” Nedic said.

When she’s not busy anchoring NIU’s starting lineup on the court, Bertucci finds a way to connect with all of her teammates off the court.

“I kind of joke with everyone a lot,” Bertucci said. “I’m always laughing with everyone and saying stupid funny stuff and making everyone laugh. I feel like that made me close to pretty much everyone on the team.”

Gooden agreed, saying that her role at NIU volleyball does not go unnoticed.

“She vibes well with everybody,” Gooden added. “Everybody understands how valuable she is but also how supportive she is of each other’s play.”

Sophomore phenom shows no signs of slowing down

Bertucci recently logged 42 digs in NIU’s 3-2 win over the Western Michigan University Broncos on Tuesday. She leads the conference with 272 sets and 5.91 digs per set as of Wednesday night.

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

Bertucci believes the Huskies have the potential to claim this year’s MAC title. NIU is 10-3 and undefeated in conference play at 3-0.

Before her playing days are over, Bertucci hopes to have the opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

“I feel like we could definitely get to that point and go there,” Bertucci said.

Before that can happen, Bertucci and the Huskies must head off to play an upcoming road series against the University at Buffalo Bulls on Friday and Saturday.

Friday’s series-opening match is scheduled to be played at 6 p.m. CT Friday at Alumni Arena in Buffalo, New York. The match will be broadcasted on ESPN+. Live stats can be monitored at SIDEARM Sports.