DeKalb, Ill. - The Northern Illinois volleyball team welcomed a new season in style as the Huskies won a hard-fought 3-2 contest over North Dakota State to open the NIU Invitational as 11th-year head coach Ray Gooden pulled the string before the match to unravel NIU's 2011 MAC Championship banner in the rafters of Victor E. Court Friday night.
NIU (1-0) started strong in the first two sets, scoring 25-23 and 27-25 victories while using a variety of line-up combinations to take what felt like a commanding lead. Junior middle blocker Sarah Angelos paced NIU with a 4-for-8, errorless first set and senior outside hitter Meghan Romo dominated the second set with a 6-1-14 (.357) attack line.
However, NDSU (0-1) - who has been in the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons - countered with two dominant third (25-18) and fourth (25-20) sets. The Bison outhit NIU .235 to .156 in the third set and did the same in the fourth, .147 to .049, taking advantage of 11 attack errors from NIU in the fourth set.
With their backs to the wall in an early season test, the Huskies prevailed in the fifth, 15-10, by racking up a 10-4 kills edge en route to outhitting NDSU .161 to .048 in the frame. The Huskies jumped out to a quick 7-2 advantage thanks to four kills from sophomore outside hitter MacKenzie Roddy. With an 8-3 lead at the flip, a Bison block and kill brought NDSU within three points, 8-5. But a whirling left-handed swing from the normally right-handed freshman setter Alexis "Pookie" Gonzales found the empty back left corner of the NDSU court and the Bison would get no closer. Romo would go on to tally NIU's final two points on kills to end the match and improve NIU to 10-1 in home and season openers under Gooden.
"We know we are going to play against teams that have been to the NCAA Tournament that play at that level," Gooden said. "North Dakota State is one of them. For us to go out there and play two strong sets and pull out two tight wins was really good. Now our team needs to learn that we need to win three sets to win a match [and not have a let down to force a fifth set]."
Overall, NIU held a 62-53 kills edge and an 88-74 advantage in digs over NDSU. Roddy led the way for NIU with career-high 18 kills and 10 digs for her first career double-double, while Romo also reached a career high with 17 kills. Angelos notched double figures as well with 11 kills and was NIU's most efficent hitter (.296).
Defensively, junior defensive specialist Justine Schepler tied a career high with 19 digs to lead the way. Senior defensive specialist Sue Hayes tallied a career high as well with 16 digs. Senior libero Amber Walker matched Hayes with 16 digs too.
In her first collegiate match, Gonzalez held her own while running the offense as she totaled 44 assists, 13 digs, four kills on eight swings with one error (.375), two blocks, and two aces, including an ace on her first-ever Huskie serve.
"We have new people in new spots," said Gooden. "Our defense really came through tonight. Our bumpers did a nice job handling the ball and did a really good job of passing. At the end of the day, serving and passing wins matches. It's great to be 1-0, but we know we have two tough matches tomorrow. It was great to get a win tonight."
NIU returns to action tomorrow with a pair of matches to wrap up the NIU Invitational. The Huskies will face Wichita State (0-1) at 2 PM CT and New Mexico State (1-0) at 7 PM. Both matches will feature live stats via GameTracker on NIUHuskies.com and will be video-streamed live through Huskie All-Access.