Huskies wrangle Rockets to force series split


Courtesy Toledo Athletics

Sophomore setter Sophie Hurt bumps the ball during the first set of NIU’s match against the University of Toledo Rockets on Saturday at John L. Savage Arena. NIU lost the opening set but rallied to win in four sets. (Evan Procaccini)

DeKALB – NIU volleyball has returned to its winning ways after taking down the University of Toledo in four sets on Saturday to wrap up its weekend road trip.

The Huskies (14-7, 7-4 MAC) rebounded from their first-set loss by stringing together three consecutive wins to leave the Toledo Rockets (14-8, 7-4 MAC) with a loss at John F. Savage Arena.

A match to remember

Sophomore middle blocker Charli Atiemo smashed a team-leading 19 kills during the match, setting a career-high for the second-year player. Her performance surpassed her 18-kill outing against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on Sept. 16, 2021.

“Charli put herself in spot to find success,” head volleyball coach Ray Gooden said. “She had one hell of a match and was able to spread that out to the rest of the team.”

Senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski and junior middle blocker Sammi Lockwood tied for second in NIU kills. Each player recorded 12 digs across four sets. Jablonski had a double-double with her 12 kills and 15 digs.

NIU defense denies

Sophomore libero Francesca “Franki” Bertucci led the defense with 18 digs. Bertucci, the conference’s digs leader, has seen a dip in her dig numbers in recent matches. Jablonski said opponents try to plan around her (Bertucci).

“I think, probably for a lot of teams, part of their game plan is to keep it (the ball) away from her (Bertucci) as much as possible,” Jablonski said. “Our block tries to funnel it to Frank (Bertucci) so the swings that we do get are digable. So, I mean, it’s great for us.”

NIU’s win also snapped Toledo’s undefeated streak (12-0) in matches where they had a hitting percentage of .200 or higher. The Rockets combined for a .242 hitting percentage in Saturday’s game.

Toledo junior outside hitter Taylor Alt commanded the Rockets’ side of the court for the second match in a row. Alt totaled a game-high 21 kills.

Not an ideal start

NIU jumped to a quick 2-0 lead and held onto it for the majority of the first set. The Rockets kept pace and forced ties at 16, 17 and 18 points. Toledo gained its second lead of the set after an attacking error by NIU junior right side hitter Emily Dykes to go up 19-18.

The set tied once more at 21 before Toledo used a pair of kills and a pair of mistakes by junior setter Ella Mihacevich to claim the set, 25-22.

Gooden said NIU had an opportunity to open the match with a win but faced snags near the end of set one.

“Let’s be honest, I think we had a chance to find success in the first set,” Gooden said. “We just got stuck again late, after 20, and then Toledo did a really nice job of finishing out that set.”

Coming from behind

Down 1-0 early and looking to avoid losing its ninth-straight set across four matches, the Huskies brought competition in the second set. NIU and Toledo were neck-and-neck to start as the two squads tied at points one through five.

The Huskies broke off and took themselves out to a 21-17 lead. A 5-0 Rocket helped bring set point for Toledo, up 24-22. NIU senior outside hitter Brianna “Bina” Scuric responded with a trio of kills to flip the tables on Toledo to give NIU set point, up 25-24. Toledo finalized its own set defeat with an attack error to tie the match at one-all.

NIU carried its momentum into the third set with an 8-2 start. Toledo was able to come within two points, down 12-10, but quickly lost pace. The Huskies rolled to a 25-18 set win to go up 2-1 on the day. The final blow for Toledo in the set was an attacking miscue, the same method of defeat suffered in the previous set.

Saturday’s fourth set opened with the same trend as the set prior. NIU established a commanding lead in the first half with a lead as high as 11 points, up 16-5. The path to the finish line became rocky for the Huskies as Toledo narrowed the gap to 22-16 and later put together three consecutive scores on NIU’s set point. Dykes vanquished the Rockets with a kill on match point.

Not done with Ohio yet

NIU remains in fourth place in the MAC standings following the weekend split. The Huskies sit behind Ohio University (14-8, 8-3 MAC), Bowling Green State University (14-8, 9-2 MAC) and the top team in the league, Ball State University (17-6, 9-2 MAC).

The Huskies will be back on the road next weekend for their second-straight trip to the state of Ohio. Jablonski and Atiemo said a strong start to the weekend is crucial for success against two different MAC foes.

“I think the first day is super important,” Atiemo said. “I know next weekend we get to see two really good teams, so just taking care of our business the first day and using that momentum for the second day is going to be really important for us next week.”

NIU will play Kent State University (12-10, 3-8 MAC) at 5 p.m. CST Friday and Ohio University at 3 p.m. CST Saturday.