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NIU volleyball: Huskies hosting MAC Tournament, look for first title since 2001

DeKALB – Last year’s Northern Illinois volleyball team got the 2016 Mid-American Conference tournament to DeKalb.

This year’s team is looking to win it.

A year after being the outright MAC regular-season champions, the No. 2-
seeded Huskies begin tournament play in a semifinal against Ohio at 7:30 p.m. today at Victor E. Court.

“We know what the mission is,” NIU coach Ray Gooden said of the tournament, which will send the champion to the NCAA tournament. “We don’t need to reiterate it every second. We know what it is.”

Top-seeded Miami (Ohio) plays Bowling Green today in the other semifinal.

The Huskies finished the 2016 regular season as co-champions with the RedHawks, who beat NIU in straight sets Oct. 29 in Oxford, Ohio. Both the Huskies and the RedHawks finished 23-5 overall and 15-1 in MAC play, with Miami’s loss coming in five sets at Kent State.

Despite the impressive regular season for the Huskies, who have won 18 of their past 19 matches, Gooden said his team still hasn’t yet hit its ceiling.

“We can still learn and get better,” Gooden said. “We have the record, but we haven’t played our best volleyball. We can still get better. We don’t feel like we peaked.”

A major advantage for the Huskies this year is they are the tournament host for the first time in Gooden’s 15 years at NIU.

“It’s new for me this year because it’s my first time hosting it,” he said Wednesday. “(On Wednesday) I’d be off in Ohio somewhere to go scout the matches, so it’s different for me. For me, it’s cool because I enjoy my bed, I enjoy our gym, I enjoy that kind of stuff right now.”

The Huskies have been in the championship match of the MAC tournament in four out of the past six seasons – including falling to Ohio in 2015 – and last won it in 2001, a year before Gooden arrived at NIU. The Huskies last made the NCAA tournament in 2011 as an at-large bid, but Gooden said the mindset going into the MAC tournament is that they have to win it to advance.

For the second straight season, the Huskies come into the tournament with the MAC Player of the Year on their roster. This week, senior Jenna Radtke was named the conference’s top player a year after T’ara Austin earned the award.

“I was very speechless when I first found out,” Radtke said. “I was feeling a lot of different emotions. It’s more than me; I couldn’t do it without my team. I can’t hit it without the setter, I can’t set it without a pass, all those aspects of the game have a big contribution.”

Joining Radtke on the all-MAC first team was senior outside hitter Mary Grace Kelly.

In the only match this season against the Bobcats (16-13, 11-5), the Huskies managed to survive for a five-set victory Oct. 21 in Athens, Ohio. The Huskies won the opening two sets before allowing the Bobcats to a deciding fifth set, which NIU won, 15-9. Radtke had a monster game against Ohio, racking up 21 kills with a .633 hitting percentage.

“Everybody is going to have a nervousness to them because they know there’s a finality to it at some point, but that’s where the best teams excel because they can play like themselves or even better.”

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