HAMMOND, Ind. — After seemingly rolling through their first two weekends of the season, the Michigan Tech Huskies volleyball team was nationally ranked and most concerned about the loss of four fifth-year seniors, who had started nearly every match of their careers, were nothing more than old news.
Then came the start of the GLIAC portion of their schedule.
The Huskies have lost four of their first five GLIAC matches, three of which by sweep. After a 3-0 loss in Marquette to rival Northern Michigan Tuesday, Huskies head coach Matt Jennings is scratching his head as he searches for the right combination of veterans and freshmen to get the Huskies back to a winning formula.
It comes down to two major issues, leadership and ball control.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We’ve had a handful of people step up in some leadership roles for us, in a good way, but we’re looking for some consistency there. In our general play, I think we knew, going into the season, that this would be a season where we were going to have some new characters in these roles. So far, we’ve had some successes, and we’ve had some setbacks.”
One of the expected leaders of the group has already seen some adversity in senior setter Lina Espejo-Ramirez. Espejo-Ramirez was injured against Davenport and missed three straight games before returning to the lineup Tuesday against the Wildcats.
“Lina is doing a fine job,” said Jennings. “She really is. We have to do a better job of supporting her with ball control in general for her to be able to find our hitters more efficiently or effectively.”
Jennings is also pleased with how freshman Olivia Heidel performed when Espejo-Ramirez was out of the lineup.
“Between Olivia coming in as a freshman in tough situations when Lina was out there for a bit, and now Lena coming in, stepping into the starting role early on, and then now coming back after the injury, I can’t ask for anything more from her.
“Our setters are doing what they can with the ball control that they are getting.”
Another bright spot offensively has been the play of senior right side hitter Jillian Kuizenga, who leads the team with 125 kills this season. She set a new career high with 19 kills against Lake Superior State.
“I think the Lake State game is a good example, three tight sets and Jillian had a career night with 19 kills,” Jennings said. “So Jillian is doing a lot of what we’re asking out of her. She comes into the season our most seasoned attacker of the pin, with a lot of success in her past two seasons. Frankly, I think her game has pretty much picked up where it left off, if not improved some, so we’re leaning on her quite a bit.”
On the other side of the court, Jennings and his staff are trying to work by committee as they try to help find an outside hitter who can take the reins and run.
Junior Lindy Oujiri has the most experience on the left side. She has 79 kills this season, but is still searching for more consistency match to match. Freshman Meg Raabe has stepped in and done well with 84 kills, especially considering she was a right side hitter most of her career prior to arriving in Houghton. Freshman Brooke Dzwik has also worked her way into the lineup, and has 21 kills in eight matches this season.
“Lindy has had a lot of success on our team so far,” said Jennings. “Lindy has the goods to get it done. We’re gonna do everything we can to help her get there. She has her moments. I think when she’s playing confidently, we see just what she’s capable of.
“Meg Raabe is an extraordinarily talented young woman who is going to have a great career for us here at Tech, but we’re putting a lot on her plate as a true freshman right now. Between her and Brooke Dwzik, another freshman on the outside, those who are passing a ton of balls early on in their career for us, playing some pretty good middle back defense, and learning how to score at a higher level.”
Hitting the road
This weekend, the Huskies head south to Hammond to face the Purdue Northwest Pride Friday evening and the Wisconsin-Parkside Rangers on Saturday afternoon. The Pride come into Friday’s match having started 6-7 on the season overall and 1-4 in GLIAC play.
The Pride have lost three straight conference matches, losing 3-0 to Grand Valley State, 3-0 to Saginaw Valley State, and 3-1 to Parkside.
The Rangers enter the weekend having won two of their last three matches, including wins over Wayne State and Purdue Northwest, but losing to Grand Valley State.
With the middle of the GLIAC standing chock full of teams who have already seen each other, Jennings admits that this weekend will be a test.
“The GLIAC, this year, is uniquely challenging,” he said. “There’s a lot of crossover here, teams are beating up on each other. You go into every one of these matches now with quite a challenge on your hands.
“I mean, Purdue Northwest is a different team than they have been in the past years. Parkside, we saw them early on in the season at their tournament (the) second weekend, and they look real good.”
Jennings is hoping that a long road trip will help build some team cohesiveness.
“Getting on the road, for us, could be a blessing here,” he said. “(If we can) come together more as a team, and (get) back to our winning ways here, I think that would be good.”