Huskies burned by Rockets in straight-set sweep

Huskies sustain loss to third different MAC opponent


Courtesy Toledo Athletics

University of Toledo senior middle blocker/opposite hitter Olivia Vance goes up for a block against NIU sophomore middle blocker Charli Atiemo’s attack during Friday’s match between the Huskies and Rockets at Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio. (Evan Procaccini | Toledo Athletics)

DeKALB – NIU volleyball was left with its third straight loss after the University of Toledo topped the Huskies in each of the match’s three sets on Friday evening.

The Huskies (13-7, 6-4 MAC) were outmatched in all three sets as the Toledo Rockets (14-7, 7-3 MAC) swept NIU to begin the two-match series between the Mid-American Conference rivals.

Friday’s first two sets ended in lopsided Toledo victories with winning scores of 25-16 and 25-15. NIU made the game tight in the deciding set that saw Toledo win by a margin of three points, 25-22.

“We saw moments of it,” head volleyball coach Ray Gooden said. “We need to continue to keep battling, to get the breaks that we’re looking for and have the breakthrough that we need.”

Needing some spark

Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci attributed part of Friday’s defeat to a lack of energy within the team.

“I don’t think we played our best,” Bertucci said. “I think we could play way better. We didn’t have a lot of energy these past two weekends which I think our team really needs.”

Bertucci added that the team’s energy has steadily dipped in each match as of late.

“We had a really strong first part of the season,“ Bertucci said. “We all just keep losing focus and energy during each match from these past two, three weekends.”

Senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski said the team’s pair of losses to Ball State University on Oct. 14-15 were ones that had a significant impact on team morale.

Meet Toledo’s top attacking tandem

A duo of junior hitters, Taylor Alt and Jada Bouyer, led Toledo’s offensive charge with 13 kills each. Senior middle blocker/opposite hitter Olivia Vance also contributed with 10 kills of her own. The Rocket offense boasted a .283 hit percentage against an NIU defense that led the MAC in digs and blocks. Toledo remains undefeated in matches where they have a hitting percentage greater than .200, sitting at 12-0.

“They were doing great, props to them,” Jablonski said. “They’re very strong hitters. On the flip side, we weren’t getting as many touches on the block as we should have. I think it was just a little hard to play defense around.”

Jablonski captained NIU’s efforts with a team-leading 11 kills as well as 12 digs. The Huskie attacking unit was held to .103 hitting percentage across all three sets.

There’s an Alt to worry about

The Rockets blasted off to a hot start with an early 3-0 lead before NIU jumped ahead to 4-3. The Huskies called a pair of timeouts during the set. The second timeout was called after Toledo’s senior outside hitter Sina Uluave recorded two kills to help the Rockets go up 16-8.

Alt, a multi-honored player with over 1,000 career kills, created problems for the Huskies in Friday’s first set. She accounted for seven of the Rockets’ kills in their 25-16 set win, six coming after NIU’s second timeout of the set. Toledo’s finishing blows of the set came in the form of two Alt kills

But wait, there’s more

While NIU had success containing Alt in the second set, only giving up one service ace to her, three other Rockets stepped up in their performances. Bouyer, Vance and senior middle blocker Rhyenne Filisi combined for 10 of Toledo’s 12 second-set kills.

Toledo maintained its control of the match throughout the second set. Alt, Boyer, Filisi and Vance each had more kills than senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski, NIU’s leading attacker with five kills.

The Huskies also dealt with miscues in set two with nine attack errors and four service aces surrendered.

Huskies make Toledo earn it

NIU’s strongest performance of the evening came in the third and final set. Bertucci said Gooden pulled the team aside, encouraging the team to “get (their) stuff together, play as a team and work harder.”

“In the past, I spent too much unnecessary time yelling about things that already happened … When your team is confident, it’s easy to talk through those things. When you’re not as confident or have setbacks, you start to talk about things in ways of not messing up.”

The Huskies fired off with a 3-0 run to take an early lead. The Huskies warded off the Rockets, not giving up the lead once. The Huskies entered the set’s media timeout with up two points, 15-13.

NIU lost the lead five rallies later after an errant attack by sophomore outside hitter Nikolette Nedic put Toledo ahead, 17-16. The advantage switched hands twice more before the Rockets pulled away near the end. Toledo brought the match to a close as Alt’s attack error on match point bounced off Bertucci’s left hand and out of bounds.

The consequences of losing

With their seventh loss of 2022, NIU dropped one more spot in the MAC standings, now sitting in fifth after they entered last weekend’s series against Ball State University in first place. Toledo now sits in third behind Ball State and Bowling Green State University with a 14-7 record in league play.

Gooden says the team is finding ways to improve despite its recent defeats.

“We are continuing to learn how to battle,” Gooden said. “Though, we’re not seeing the result at the end that we’re hoping for, there are things that we are doing that’s improving. We’re going to continue to work on improving to get better, to play the type of match that we’re looking for, the match that’s needed to be successful.”

Both teams will return to action at 3 p.m. CST Saturday when they will go head-to-head for the last match of their series. The match will be held at Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio.