Volleyball’s rally stalls in four-set defeat

Rising star enters 1,000 digs club

From+left%3A+Sophomore+libero+Francesca+Bertucci%2C+senior+outside+hitter+Katie+Jablonski%2C+sophomore+middle+blocker+Charli+Atiemo+and+junior+setter+Ella+Mihacevich+prepare+for+a+new+rally+against+NJIT+on+Aug.+26.+The+Huskies+took+the+match+3-0+as+part+of+their+first+win+at+the+Huskie+Invitational.+%28Sean+Reed+%7C+Northern+Star%29

Sean Reed

From left: Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci, senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski, sophomore middle blocker Charli Atiemo and junior setter Ella Mihacevich prepare for a new rally against NJIT on Aug. 26. The Huskies took the match 3-0 as part of their first win at the Huskie Invitational. (Sean Reed | Northern Star)

By Skyler Kisellus, Sports Editor

DeKALB – A 22-14 lead in Friday’s deciding set wasn’t enough to keep the Huskies’ comeback hopes alive as the NIU volleyball team fell to the Central Michigan University Chippewas 3-1 at Victor E. Court.

NIU started the match down big, trailing 2-0 heading into the third set. The third saw the Huskies start to turn matters around, slipping past CMU 25-21 late in the set. NIU was on pace to take the match to a fifth set before a late collapse delivered the Huskies their third-straight home loss.

“We’re capable of doing it (winning),” head coach Ray Gooden said. “That’s the biggest thing; we can do that. We can get a split this weekend … We’re able to put ourselves in spots to win, now we just got to finish.”

The Huskies were faced with tough competition on the other side of the net. Three Chippewas recorded double-digit kills and five had double-digit digs. CMU freshman setter Claire Ammeraal had a triple-double outing, logging 10 kills, 36 assists and 21 digs.

The Huskies led the all-time series against the Chippewas heading into Friday’s match, 41-26. NIU prevailed in its last meeting with CMU on Sept. 25, 2021, having come back from a one set deficit to win in four sets on the road.

Late-set stalls lead to bitter end

NIU found itself on top in the 20s portion of Friday’s first and fourth sets. Both times, the Huskies allowed CMU to tie and eventually pull out the victory.

“Our beginning and our end was not good,” senior outside hitter Katie Jablonski said. “We need to start better – we need to start more aggressive.”

Leading the set 22-14 and three points away from forcing a fifth set, NIU quickly saw its lead dissipate. CMU tallied six kills and benefited from six errors in the span of 14 rallies to secure a 26-24 win in the fourth and final set.

“We’ve got to really push harder in the end so that we can get over the hump and feel comfortable about moving on to the next phase,” Gooden said.

Jablonski said the team has had internal discussions about its performance after reaching the 20s range.

“Too many times, we let teams come back in like tonight (Friday),” Jablonski said. “(We’re) just really focusing on finishing the last few points in the match.”

Bright spots on the losing side

NIU dazzled in the serving game with 10 service aces. Junior setter Ella Mihacevich and sophomore right back Sophie Hurt each had a game-high three service aces.

Junior right side hitter Emily Dykes and Jablonski led NIU’s offensive charge with 12 and 11 kills respectively. Jablonski’s game total puts her at 954 career kills, 46 short of 1,000. She needs to average 11.5 kills across the next four matches to hit 1k.

Libero reaches career milestone

Sophomore libero Francesca “Franki” Bertucci surpassed 1,000 career digs during Friday’s match, racking up a game-high 30 digs in four sets. Bertucci entered the weekend with 985 digs, needing 15 in the match to reach quadruple digits.

Bertucci’s 15th dig of the match came in the middle of the third set. She proceeded to double that number in her efforts to bolster NIU’s defense, a unit that Gooden highlighted postgame.

“It’s awesome for Franki,” Gooden said. ”She’s done a great job. I mean, for her to get over 1,000 digs in her second season with still more volleyball left, it’s an incredible thing to say about what she’s been able to do for our team and for this program.”

While an important achievement, Bertucci said the loss of Friday’s game left her with mixed emotions.

“I’m upset that we lost right now, but I’m happy,” Bertucci said. “I still have work to do.”

Honoring Huskies past

NIU volleyball honored its various clusters of alumni throughout the match as part of its Alumni Night celebration.

The 2001 team was the first to be honored, taking the court midway through the first set. The Huskies, led by former head coach Todd Kress in his final season at NIU, went 24-6 in the regular season, including a 15-3 record in MAC play. The team swept opponents on its way to a conference title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

NIU’s 2011 squad was next to be recognized as the players were honored early in the second set. The 2011 Huskies played their way to a 28-7 regular season win-loss record. NIU also went 14-2 in its conference slate. That team later lost to the University of Miami in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

All NIU volleyball alumni in attendance were individually recognized before the third set. Notable names such as Kristin Hoffman and Jenna Radtke were called while each former player received a Huskie Pride pennant and a flower.

The night of recognition was capped with the honoring of the 2016 NIU volleyball team near the end of the third set. The Huskies rolled to a 25-win season and dominated the MAC with a 15-1 record. Like 2001 and 2011, the 2016 team was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Put the brooms away, Chips

The Huskies, whose past four losses were 3-0 defeats, successfully avoided its fifth-straight sweep with a victory in the match’s third set.

Friday’s third set was a highly-contested one as neither team had a lead greater than four-points during the set. Up one point late in the set, 21-20, NIU put together three kills to send the set to set point. NIU claimed its first win of the night with a service ace by sophomore right back Sophie Hurt, forcing the match into a fourth set.

One last chance to win at home

With the loss, NIU has dropped six of its past seven matches, their lone win coming against the University of Toledo on Oct. 22.

NIU will play the Chippewas once more at 2 p.m. Saturday at Victor E. Court. NIU’s three senior outside hitters, Jablonski, Brianna Scuric and Kaitlyn Bell, will be honored ahead of the home finale.

Jablonski said the match will be a bittersweet one as she plays her final match at Victor E. Court.

“I love this gym, so it’s sad that I’ll never play here again,” Jablonski said. “I think it’s just going to be sad because I know that I won’t have as much time to spend with them, but I’m excited that I’m spending it with my best friends.”

When asked if she believes she’ll play with the most fire she’s ever had, Jablonski had a short response:

“I hope so.”

The senior day ceremony will take place at approximately 1:45  p.m. Saturday at Victor E. Court, according to Associate Athletics Communications Director Nick Shammas.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Nov. 5 to reflect a change to the start time of Saturday’s Senior Day ceremony. The time was changed from 1:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. after confirmation from Shammas.