Volleyball will be NIU’s fall frontrunner – Northern Star

Sean Reed

(Left to Right) Francesca Bertucci, Katie Jablonski, Charli Atiemo and Ella Mihacevich celebrate a kill in the second set of their match against Southern Indiana Saturday afternoon. (Sean Reed | Northern Star)

NIU is commonly tabbed as a football school, although perhaps that shouldn’t be the case this season.

Those keeping up with NIU sports probably would have picked Huskie football as the most successful fall sport this season. NIU football won the Mid-American Conference in their last season and retained enough talent to justify a potential repeat at a conference championship.

Nearly a month-and-a-half into the season, it’s time to point out that football’s near monopoly of the attention of fans is not warranted. This season is one for NIU volleyball.

Volleyball making a case for a title run

Huskie volleyball has already matched, and in some cases surpassed, its win total for each season from 2017 to spring 2021. NIU needs to win five of its remaining 13 games to match its win total from last season, which resulted in a berth to the MAC Tournament.

Recent weeks of conference play have also shown that the MAC is up for grabs. This season’s reigning champions, Ball State University, dropped its first two games of league play to the Central Michigan University Chippewas.

NIU volleyball is currently 11-4 overall and 4-1 against MAC opponents. Although their recent loss to the University at Buffalo on Saturday killed its eight-game winning streak, NIU sits atop the conference standings.

Some of NIU’s successes have made it to the national leaderboard. Sophomore libero Francesca Bertucci is second in the nation with 5.90 digs per set. Junior setter Ella Mihacevich sits at 26th with an average of 10.63.

The efforts of Bertucci and Mihacevich, combined with that of the remainder of the starting lineup, have helped NIU become a deadly offensive unit. The Huskies own ninth place nationally with 14.17 kills per set as a unit.

With 15 games in the books for 2022, NIU has already proven itself capable of exceeding the expectations imposed upon it. Volleyball was projected to finish fourth in the MAC West in the 2022 MAC Volleyball Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

No Huskies were selected to the Preseason West All-MAC Team. Since the selections were released on Aug. 24, four different Huskies have hauled in player of the week honors. Bertucci and Mihacevich have earned MAC weekly honors twice. Middle blockers sophomore Charli Atiemo and junior Sammi Lockwood have each earned one MAC West Defensive Player of the Week.

Football, not so much

Coming off a MAC title last season, the expectations were high for NIU football, and rightfully so. The Huskies capped off their 10-5 season with an appearance in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl, losing 47-41 to Coastal Carolina University. The narrow loss is underlined by the fact that the Chanticleers have been one of the winningest teams in college football as of late. CCU currently holds a win-loss record of 27-3 that dates back to the beginning of the 2020 season.

A 24-member panel of MAC media members voted NIU to win the West Division and the conference in the Mid-American Conference Football Preseason Media Poll released on July 26. Five games into 2022, NIU football is dead last in the MAC West.

The team has gone 1-4 to start the season and are fresh off a stinging loss to Ball State University. Several key starters have been plagued with injuries, namely starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi for the past two-and-a-half games. The defense has also given up 30+ points in NIU’s four losses, including a pair of comebacks.

The signs of trouble made themselves apparent early this season when NIU nearly let Eastern Illinois University, an FCS (Football Conference Subdivision) program, tie the game before the clock ran out.

Although league play has just begun, it’s hard not to have doubts when the team is currently on the same tier of success as the University of Akron, a typical bottom feeder in the conference. While one can point to NIU’s latest injuries as part of a reason for the struggles, those still don’t change the fact that NIU football has not come close to meeting the lofty expectations placed upon it.

Simply put, “The Hard Way” is not the winning way right now.

The time is now for volleyball to take the spotlight. After a marvelous start to 2022, it’s safe to say the Huskies have earned the right to draw the crowds at Victor E. Court.

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