GENEVA, Ohio - For the third straight year, the Northern Illinois volleyball team advanced to the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals with a 20-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-18 win over No. 5 seed Akron Friday morning at SPIRE Institute. The No. 4-seeded Huskies (20-13, 10-6 MAC) will play the winner of the No. 1 Ohio-No. 8 Ball State match in the semifinals Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CT.
"We weathered their storm," said NIU Head Coach Ray Gooden, who has won at least one match in eight of 11 MAC Tournament appearances. "We started off a little tight but we were fortunate enough to win the second set. With our serving and passing, I thought we did a good job of taking control. We stayed composed and did a really good job of settling down. That helped us pull away in the match."
The Huskies entered the match with wins in four of their last five and stayed hot against the Zips (16-13, 9-7 MAC), who NIU has now beaten in 10 consecutive meetings. The only set in which NIU stumbled in was the first as the Huskies came out flat defensively, surrendering a .344 attack percentage, and misfired on several attacks to give the Zips an 8-1 edge in errors.
The Huskies quickly regrouped for the rest of the match as an 18-18 tie in the second set was broken by an Akron serve error and stuff block by Emily Paschke (Winfield, Ill./West Chicago Community). After an Akron kill, Mary Kurisch (La Crosse, Wis./West Salem) scored on a quick and Justine Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) served up an ace to help NIU end the set with a 7-2 run to tie it at the break.
Down 5-2 early in the all-important swing set, NIU clawed back to tie it at 15-15 on an Akron error. NIU then opened up a three-point lead, 18-15, but it quickly disappeared on three straight Zip points, and Akron battled for a 22-21 lead a few plays later. Needing a point, Alexis Gonzalez (Fresno, Calif./Bullard) responded on a dump. Kurisch followed with a kill on a quick and Gonzalez fired an ace to set up set point. After NIU missed on its first chance, Akron missed wide to give NIU a 25-23 set win and 2-1 lead heading into the fourth set with all of the momentum.
Smelling another semifinals appearance, NIU came out on fire in the fourth to open up an 8-2 lead. Meghan Romo (Valparaiso, Ind./Valparaiso) started the run with a kill to open the set. Then Gonzalez scored an ace and Paschke put up back-to-back stuff blocks for a 4-0 start, forcing a really early Akron timeout. The Zips never recovered and only got as close as four points away from NIU the rest of the set.
After Akron held a decisive blocking advantage to start the match, NIU outblocked the Zips 10-2 the rest of the way. Kurisch led the match with eight blocks, while Paschke turned in five.
Roddy paced the NIU attack with 15 kills. Romo added 11 and Kurisch had 12 with a match-high .391 attack percentage. Roddy also racked up 10 digs and an ace.
In her first postseason appearance, Gonzalez put on quite a show. The rookie setter handed out 43 assists, had seven digs, four aces and three kills on nine errorless attempts.
"Pookie (Alexis Gonzalez) did a really good job," Gooden said. "It's her first time doing this. She worked her way into it. One thing she's done well all year is serve. She did a really good job of serving today."
In the back row, Amber Walker (Juneau, Alaska/Juneau Douglas/Western Oregon) totaled 22 digs. Schepler also reached double figures with 10.
With the 20th win of the season, Gooden earned his fifth season with 20 or more wins and third in a row. NIU has appeared in the MAC semifinals six other times (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2010, 2011).
Live stats and video for NIU's match against the OU-BSU winner will be on MAC-Sports.com.