CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - The Northern Illinois volleyball team dropped a 19-25, 15-25, 25-11, 18-25 decision to Northern Iowa Tuesday night at McLeod Center as the Huskies (7-6) gave the Panthers (7-4) all they could handle in their home opener in front of nearly 2,700 fans.
A long and successful weekend at Missouri State had NIU entering the contest on a four-match winning streak but also played against the team as the Huskies came out flat in the first two sets against last week's AVCA No. 25th-ranked team. Receiving 40 votes in this week's poll, Northern Iowa was able to take advantage of a fatigued NIU team that returned home Sunday morning around 7 AM CT after topping Missouri State Saturday night for the MSU Invite title.
"The short of it is - unfortunately, it's an opportunity that we let slip by tonight," said NIU Head Coach Ray Gooden. "I thought we had a really good chance to put some pressure on a very good, perennial top-25 Northern Iowa program. We are playing the schedule, we are playing these tough teams to not only get us ready for conference season but to learn about ourselves and get better. Battling in this environment is important to our team."
Statistically, both teams were nearly dead even. UNI, who has been to the NCAA Tournament six straight years, held slim edges in kills (45-38), aces (7-4) and blocks (10-7). NIU had fewer hitting errors (30-24) and one more dig (83-82). But the difference in the match was in the first two sets, when NIU was sluggish in serve-receive. In those sets, the Huskies were aced six times and had four serving errors, while UNI had just one reception error and three serve errors.
Following the break, the Huskies regrouped to put together the best set either team had all match long. The Huskies simply manhandled the Panthers, opening up a 20-6 lead. The Panther faithful even gave a sarcastic cheer for their team when they finally scored their seventh point of the set after NIU reeled off eight straight points. The 25-11 loss was the largest margin UNI had been beaten by in any set this year.
The Huskies continued to threaten the Panthers in the fourth set after taking an early 6-4 lead after a huge block from freshman setter Alexis Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard) and junior middle Sarah Angelos (Waukegan, Ill./Waukegan). But then NIU ran out of gas and Northern Iowa went on a 13-4 run to create separation and finish the match.
Senior outside Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) led NIU with a match-high 13 kills, adding 10 digs to boot. Sophomore outside MacKenzie Roddy (San Bernardino, Calif./Cajon) also reached double digits with 11 kills. Gonzalez handed out 31 assists and had 13 digs.
The Huskie back row was busy all match as all three defensive specialists racked up double figure digs. Senior libero Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) led with 25. Junior Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) had 15 and senior Sue Hayes (Evergreen Park, Ill./Mother McAuley) tallied 10.
NIU is in the midst of a 14-match road trip over a span of just 23 days, and is 5-4 thus far. Representing 42 percent of the schedule, the expedition continues Friday at Southern Illinois Edwardsville with a 6 PM tilt.