Last week, women’s volleyball was gearing up for opening weekend at the Northern Illinois University Invitational. Over the weekend, they headed to DeKalb, Illinois, to compete, losing their first match but coming back with two wins.
In their first game of the invitational, they lost 3-0 against the University of California, Riverside, but came back with a win against NIU’s Huskies with a score of 3-1. They won their final match against Farleigh Dickinson University, winning 3-0.
According to Head Coach Kendall Paulus, the team had only been training with each other, but that meant they had to work even harder to prepare for opponents they were unfamiliar with, Paulus said.
“They’ve been here since early July training. The level they’ve trained at this summer is I think the highest level yet for our program,” Paulus said. “I know they’re really ready to see another team on the other side of the net. So we are just trying to do everything we can, you know, defensively and offensively to be ready for a different style of play, just because we are so used to how we run our system and our tempo. We are just trying to make sure we cover our bases.”
Junior outside hitter Rachel McDonald said she was excited going into the invitational. She said her biggest goal was taking things one step at a time.
“I would really like to focus [on] one point at a time. I think that will [keep us] in the mindset of small wins,” McDonald said. “Coach Paulus has talked a lot about small wins and that those will eventually lead to the bigger wins.”
In the first match against Riverside, things started with a loss for the Cougars. Riverside’s starting players all saw three sets on the court. The Cougars, however, were still figuring things out in the lineup. Some players played the entire match, while others only played one or two sets.
Though they lost to Riverside, they faced the Huskies later in the day with some adjustments. Every Cougar that hit the court stayed on the court for the entire match, and the Cougars more than doubled their attacks from the first game. Against Riverside, the Cougars only managed 24 attacks, while when facing the Huskies, they made 61 attacks.
Redshirt sophomore and middle blocker Hope Everett said things started rough, but once everything fell into place after the first game, the team did well.
“Friday morning was a little bit of a rough start,” Everett said. “We were just trying to find our groove and things weren’t clicking, but I think as we went into Friday night and Saturday morning, we kind of fell into a rhythm, and everything started clicking. I think that we did a really good job executing everything that we had been working on in practice.”
Paulus said the Cougars were consistently serving well, and seeing growth in other aspects of their game.
“Some of our strengths were serving, and by the second two matches, I thought our hitting efficiency was a strength and in our balance,” Paulus said.
Paulus said that coming out of the invitational with two wins and one loss did a lot for the team.
There were several highpoints to the games, but one of the best moments for the coaching staff was seeing the team adapt and communicate, Paulus said.
“We really learned from our first match, … the fact that we bounced back so quickly for the second two matches, it was just really great to see. I think that was definitely a highlight for the coaching staff,” Paulus said.
Both before and after the invitational, Paulus said the team’s main goal was focusing on the small things and that approach led to their successes in the later matches.
“I think we need to continue to just work on the small details,” Paulus said. “Those were a big focus for us. In those last two matches, we just had kind of a lot of confidence and really came together as a good team. And every single player really was extremely engaged and bought into the small things during those matches. So it allowed us to really have strategy and game plan.”
One of the big wins for the team is their fan base, according to the team. Everett, McDonald and Paulus all echoed how important it was for their fans to be involved.
McDonald said moving forward that fans can expect a good time.
“I honestly think [fans] can expect a fun game to watch. We are really close as a team and I think that shows on the court. We have our cheers down on the bench and court,” McDonald said. “We really like to keep the fans involved because we think that fan momentum is really big for us. So even if we are on the road or at home, our fan base is something that’s really important to us, so I think they can expect to find an entertaining match.”
Everett said the team played strongly at the NIU Invitational. They went into the weekend with high expectations and came home happy.
“We had high expectations of ourselves, but we went in knowing we had to work for every single point that we got,” Everett said. “We’ve been working really hard in preseason and even coming in the summer and doing workouts as a team. But we knew that the teams that were there this weekend were good, so we were going to have to play our best volleyball. And I think we really stepped up to the plate when it counted.”
Sept. 6, the team heads to Carbondale, Illinois to play in the Saluki Bash Tournament.They’ll go head-to-head against the Southeastern Louisiana University, SIU Carbondale’s and the Alabama A&M University.