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Experienced and deep, NKU volleyball poised to challenge for 2019 Horizon League title

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

Experienced, talented and deep at every position, Northern Kentucky University is poised to challenge for this season’s Horizon League volleyball championship.

A rugged spring schedule of scrimmages also provided some helpful insight for the Norse, who posted a 21-10 record last season and finished as the Horizon League Tournament runner-up.

“We played really tough competition in the spring,” NKU head coach Liz Hart said, “and we realized we can play with these teams as long as we’re strong and more physical.”

Liz Hart

Among the teams NKU faced during the spring season was Southeastern Conference champion Kentucky, which posted a 26-5 record a year ago and advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Norse also played Michigan State of the Big Ten and Atlantic 10 Tournament champion Dayton in spring scrimmages.

As the players returned to campus in August for the beginning of practice, Hart was pleased with the progress from their offseason weight training and conditioning.

“Our players worked very hard in the weight room,” said Hart, who is entering her 10th season as head coach at NKU. “One of the things we’re most excited about is the fact we have 12 returners, and they all came back stronger and more fit.”

Five starters are among the letterwinners for NKU, which earned a berth in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship last season. The Norse must replace graduated All-Horizon League performer Haley Libs and her 1,580 career kills, but a deep pool of talented attackers should ease her absence in the NKU lineup.

“Our attackers have been around and bring valuable experience,” said Hart, who switched to the 6-2 offense last season. “Having so many returners, we’re hoping our offense will be more balanced this year. We went to the 6-2 offense last year so we could be more physical at the net, and it gave us more options with our attackers.”

In the 6-2 offense, teams utilize six hitters — with three attackers on the front row at all times — and two setters. Switching from the 5-1 system to the 6-2 allowed NKU to take full advantage of its talented attackers.

Bailey Western

Junior middle blocker Bailey Western earned All-Horizon League honorable mention accolades last season after recording 202 kills and hitting .252. The 6-foot-1 Western also finished with 91 total blocks.

Senior outside hitter Laura Crawford collected 201 kills a year ago and ranked third on the team with 61 total blocks. Sophomore Anna Brinkmann also returns after finishing second on the team last season with 238 kills. Brinkmann, who hammered down a career-high 20 kills against Green Bay, earned a spot on the Horizon League’s All-Freshman Team. She also posted a .971 reception percentage to lead NKU’s primary passers.

In addition, NKU returns 6-foot-1 sophomore middle blocker Natalie Hardig, who led the team with 94 total blocks last season. The Notre Dame Academy graduate finished with 170 kills and attacked at a .287 clip. Junior right-side hitter Kaelin Gentile (96 kills, 40 blocks in 2018) also returns.

The abundance of talented hitters figures to make NKU an imposing offensive team, despite the loss of Libs.

NKU’s Miranda Wucherer recorded 16 double-doubles last season, four of which were four triple-doubles. (Photo by Chloe Smith, NKU Athletics Communications)

“Haley was a phenomenal player and very talented,” Hart said. “Every year you look at your team and what strengths you have. Then you play to your strengths. We have a lot of attackers. We know we have two great setters. Running the 6-2 offense, we’re looking for more balance and you utilize the sets those players are good at.

“You can try and earn points in other ways than just kills. Our blocking should be better this year. We’re trying to get points there because we’re bigger than we’ve been.”

Hart also noted that redshirt freshman Abby Kanakry will be a factor as a right-side hitter. “She’s probably the tallest kid we’ve had in the program,” Hart said of the 6-foot-1 Kanakry. “Her wingspan is long, so I’m really excited to see what she can do.”

Running NKU’s 6-2 offense will be a pair of experienced, skilled setters in senior Shelby Olsen and sophomore Miranda Wucherer. Olsen distributed 704 assists and served up a team-leading 35 aces last season, while Wucherer — who also attacks in the 6-2 offense as a right-side hitter — finished with 705 assists, 183 kills and 315 digs.

Wucherer recorded 16 double-doubles last season, four of which were four triple-doubles. The 5-foot-9 Wisconsin native also notched double-doubles in six of her last seven matches. She averaged 6.08 assists per set as a major part of NKU’s 6-2 offense, running the Norse offense in her back-row rotations and attacking on the front row.

“We have two great setters in Shelby and Miranda,” Hart said. “Miranda finished last season hitting, but right now we have her focusing on setting. I know she’s also a great attacker.”

Defensively, NKU led the nation in digs last season with an average of 19.83 scoops per set. Junior libero Ashton Terrill paced the Horizon League with 5.56 digs per set (11th nationally) and anchors the NKU back row. Terrill, who also earned All-Horizon League honors, recorded at least 20 digs in 17 matches and reached the 30-dig mark six times. She also joined NKU’s 1,000-dig club last year.

Ashton Terrill

“Ashton Terrill had a great sophomore season,” Hart said. “Our entire back row is filled with good defenders. We led the nation in digs, so we should be terminating more attacks.

“We return three primary passers, and they do a great job. We rely on their ability to pass to run our quicker offense. But we’re one of the better passing teams in the league.”

Hart, who has guided NKU to a pair of 20-win seasons (25-7 in 2012 and 21-10 in 2018) since the Norse made the move to Division I, has bigger aspirations for her 2019 squad — winning the Horizon League championship.

“That’s definitely our goal,” Hart said. “We know the league is going to be good, should be better than last year overall. The league, in general, had a lot of young players last year. I think over the next couple of years it’s just going to continue to get better.

“I think it’s going to be a great year for the conference, but I’m hoping with the amount of talent and depth we have, and the options that we can run, we can shoot to win the Horizon League championship.”

NKU begins regular-season play Friday at 4:30 p.m. by taking on South Alabama at the Purdue Fort Wayne Invitational. The Norse conclude the event on Saturday by meeting Western Michigan at 1:30 p.m. and host Purdue Fort Wayne at 7 p.m.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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