Story Courtesy of NIU Media Relations
DeKALB, Ill. - Preseason practice has never been as important as it has been for the Northern Illinois volleyball team, which is comprised of 10 underclassmen that will determine how far the Huskies go in 2010.
With such a youthful composition to the roster, ninth-year head coach Ray Gooden's goal in camp is trying to speed up the development of the five freshman and five sophomores that will lead the way.
"The biggest thing for our entire group has been gaining experience together," said Gooden. "With a young group we try to do our best to expand their volleyball IQ, yet stay patient and positive throughout the process. I think they have put in a real solid effort up to this point, playing together and competing."
Gooden will also be relying on the three returning upperclassmen to bring along the young Huskies. Senior libero Maddie Hughes and juniors outside hitter Allison McGlaughlin and setter Kristin Hoffman all had successful freshman campaigns, especially McGlaughlin, who was selected to the MAC All-Freshman team in 2008. The trio knows what it takes to succeed right away in the college environment, and Gooden is depending on them to help the 2010 underclassmen do the same.
"It's nice to have core players that have been there and done it," Gooden said. "So they can help our inexperienced players through the phases of development. The neat thing is that they, too, have new challenges as upperclassmen. I've been encouraged by their level of development in their new roles as well."
If all goes well, the outstanding talent of this year's squad will shine through as NIU looks to take the next step. In 2006, Gooden led the Huskies to the top of the MAC West Division, earning a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, but fell short in the second round. Last year, the Huskies claimed a bye in the first round for the first time since then, but came up on the wrong end once again. With the remaining members of the 2006 team now gone, including the program's third all-time kills leader Meagan Schoenrock, a fresh group gets their chance to leave their mark on the Northern Illinois volleyball program.
"This group, both young and old, is very motivated to define themselves in the Northern Illinois volleyball program," said Gooden.
Being a part-time player for two years with the graduated Amanda Tadla ahead of her, Kristin Hoffman will get a chance to captain the team in full-time fashion. With 25 appearances in the 30 matches last season, Hoffman set career highs in assists (748), digs (161), kills (27), blocks (25), aces (14), and points (55). She also notched a career best five double-doubles. While leading the team in assists, she ranked third in the MAC during conference play with 10.96 assists per set.
Behind Hoffman is a new face in Kayla Zeno, who led Stillwater Area High School (Minn.) to a fourth place finish in the state championship in 2009, earning first team all-state recognition. Zeno holds Stillwater records for assists in a season (726) and career (2,026).
"Kristin's strength has been her ability to lead, and she's also been able to gain valuable on-court experience in her first two years," Gooden said. "She's been working hard to accept the challenge of being the experienced setter of the team.
"She also knows that Kayla Zeno is a very athletic setter who compliments her style well. She helps not only to push Kristin, but our team as well."
The Outside Hitters
The outside hitters will be led by two-time All-MAC recipient Allison McGlaughlin, who bettered her MAC All-Freshman campaign with a second team All-MAC season in 2009. She set career marks for points (412), kills (375), and blocks (30). Playing in all 108 sets, McGlaughlin ranked second on the team and sixth in the MAC in kills (3.47/set).
Returning for her sophomore season, Meghan Romo looks to play a healthy season as she was only able to appear in 58 sets due to injuries as a rookie. However, she was still able to tally 130 kills, and ranked fourth on the team with 2.48 points per set.
Joining McGlaughlin is a much heralded freshman in Lauren Wicinski, whose mother, Gina Graf, was a Huskie volleyball standout from 1983-86 and ranks seventh on the program's all-time kills list (1,328). As the first high school All-American to play on the NIU volleyball team, Wicinski racked up 1,143 kills at Geneva High School while hitting over .400 each year, including hitting an astonishing .691 as a senior. In addition to her Under Armour All-American recognition in 2009, Wicisnki was also named a first team all-state performer and was nominated for the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year award.
Another talented freshman that figures to help the Huskies right away is Tori Halbur, who led Millard West High School (Neb.) to a district runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2009. In her senior campaign, Halbur tallied 178 kills, 30 blocks, and 25 aces in 31 matches.
"I'm excited about the group of pin hitters that we have," said Gooden. "We really like Allison's aggressiveness. We've been working a lot on her range. Romo has been working really hard on her health and stability. We expect her to return to freshman pre-conference form. Lauren comes in highly regarded and Tori comes in very athletic. Both have a chance to not only challenge for significant time, but add depth to our attacking core."
The Middle Blockers
Fresh off a great experience in Brazil over the summer with the Bring It Promotions/USA Development Team, sophomore Mary Kurisch will anchor the middle. Kurisch played in 102 sets as a freshman, leading the team in solo blocks (14), while ranking second on the team in blocks (71) and fourth on the team with 160 kills and 202.5 points.
"I think Mary's recent experiences have helped her with her level of confidence in playing collegiate volleyball," said Gooden.
Behind Kurisch will be sophomore Sam Grams and freshman Sarah Angelos. Grams looks to gain more experience in 2010 after playing in two matches as a freshman. Angelos comes to NIU as a three-time all-county honoree for Waukegan H.S. As a senior, Angelos totaled 176 kills, 52 blocks, and 12 aces in 30 matches.
"Sam has been working really hard to make an impact on the court, and has been doing a nice job," Gooden said. "Sarah is a very athletic volleyball player. She has made significant strides from her senior season through the summer and in the early parts of our preseason. We expect her to make a positive impact with our group."
The Defensive Specialists
The back row will be led by the combo of freshman Justine Schepler, sophomore Sue Hayes, sophomore Amber Walker, and 2009 MAC Defensive Player of the Year senior Maddie Hughes.
A local product, Schepler led Sycamore High School to a third place finish at the state championship as a senior. The 2008 all-state special mention holds SHS career (1,079) and season (325) records for digs.
Appearing in 96 sets as a freshman, Hayes totaled 154 digs and ranked third on the team with 11 aces.
As a transfer from Western Oregon, Walker will be a Huskie rookie in 2010, and will be looking to get back on the court after redshirting last season at WOU.
"The newly named ‘bump squad' is one impressive group of volleyball players," Gooden said. "They are the energizers of our team. I can't really talk about one without talking about the whole group, and that's a very positive thing. I have the upmost confidence in that group's ability to handle the ball, energize, and stabilize our team."
The 2010 slate features contests against 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifiers College of Charleston and Ohio, two home matches versus Big Ten teams Wisconsin and Iowa, and match-ups with Big East foes DePaul and Marquette.
The Huskies will have 17 home and 15 road matches, including a season high seven-match homestand to end September that begins with Wisconsin, which is led by former outstanding NIU head coach Pete Waite. In 10 years (1988-98) at NIU, Waite led the Huskies to four NCAA appearances, and the match will be his first return to DeKalb since leaving. Additionally, NIU begins and ends the MAC schedule with three straight home matches.
"The schedule, as challenging as it always is, also is a favorable one," said Gooden. "We play the spectrum when it comes to styles of play in our opponents, from quick and experienced to incredibly athletic and physical. We are excited for the challenge."