DeKALB – While waiting for a postgame TV interview, Ray Gooden buried his face into a towel for 20 seconds.
The winningest volleyball coach in Northern Illinois history, Gooden was visibly emotional after the No. 2 seed Huskies swept No. 1 Miami (Ohio) in the championship match of the Mid-American Conference tournament, 25-18, 25-20, 25-20, in front of an overflowing crowd Sunday night at the NIU Convocation Center.
After 15 years and 289 wins, Gooden has his first MAC tournament title in his fifth trip to the game.
“The emotions are more ... you want it to work well for them,” Gooden said of his players. “It’s a good group, and this weekend shouldn’t define us; it just might cement it off what this team has done.”
It’s the first MAC Tournament championship for the Huskies since 2001 – which also was played in DeKalb. The win also secures a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
The Huskies have been to the MAC Championship five out of the past seven seasons.
When the players and coaches were announced in the postgame ceremony, Gooden was cheered the loudest by far.
“He has been this close so many times, and we just couldn’t pull through for him or for each other,” said senior middle blocker Jenna Radtke, who was named the MAC Player of the Year. “This is probably such a special moment for him.”
The Huskies find out Sunday who they will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Coming into the match, it had the makings of a potential five-set thriller between the MAC’s two powerhouses. The two teams were co-champions in the regular season after going 15-1 during conference play. The Huskies (25-5) had won 19 of their past 20 matches, and the RedHawks (24-6) had won 23 out of their past 24 matches – including a 20-game winning streak – after opening the season 1-3.
In their only meeting of the regular season, the RedHawks swept the Huskies on Oct. 29 in Oxford.
On Sunday, it was all Huskies.
The RedHawks never led by more than one point in any of the sets, and the NIU defense held Miami to a .221 hitting percentage – including .093 in the second set.
“(The defense) was great,” Gooden said. “We were just so locked in today.”
The Huskies senior outside hitter Mary Grace Kelly, who was named the tournament’s MVP, had 12 kills and three aces, Radtke had 10 kills and a hitting percentage of .500 and junior setter Chandler Kinley and junior libero Anna Brereton each had 14 digs.
The final point came on a kill by sophomore middle blocker Meg Wolowicz, and the Huskies players hugged and hit the floor in celebration.
“First you scream,” Kelly said. “Then you see the faces of everybody and realize all the hard work you put in the offseason, and it’s Ray’s first tournament championship, for us to be there for it and to get the win for him and the rest of your teammates, you can’t do anything other than cry.”
The players weren’t the only ones to shower praise upon Gooden after the match. NIU athletic director Sean Frazier, who sat courtside during the match, said the celebration was long overdue for Gooden and the Huskies.
“This is big, this is big,” Frazier said. “When you have the dominance and the consistency that coach Gooden and these ladies – not just this year. They are one of our preeminent programs. I’m very proud of them. ... To be represented nationally, to go to the NCAA tournament, it’s phenomenal.”