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Big swings on display, Michigan halts NKU’s late-season surge in first round of NCAA Tournament

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

LEXINGTON — As the calendar turned from October to November, Northern Kentucky recovered from a midseason slump and emerged as the Horizon League’s best volleyball team.

Chemistry developed at just the right time on a youthful NKU roster. Victories began accumulating, both home and away. The Norse steamrolled past the opposition to capture their first-ever Horizon League title. Suddenly, the team that stood 11-12 on Nov. 1 owned eight consecutive wins and a championship trophy.

They also earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament, with a first-round matchup against Michigan of the Big Ten. Best of all, the opening two rounds were being held just an hour south of Highland Heights in Memorial Coliseum. A victory over the Wolverines on Friday would likely set up a showdown with three-time defending Southeastern Conference champion Kentucky.

NKU’s Reilly Briggs (4) launches an attack against Michigan defenders Paige Jones (1) and Cori Crocker (16) in the first set on Friday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

That NKU/UK clash will have to wait for another year, though. Michigan ended NKU’s torrid late-season run with a 25-22, 25-15, 25-22 victory. The hard-swinging Wolverines, ranked No. 22 nationally, hit .280 and improved to 21-10. Michigan attacked at a .370 clip in the second set, and then capped the win by hitting .342 in the final stanza.

“They have great outsides that are able to take big swings anywhere on the court,” NKU head coach Liz Hart said of Michigan’s attackers. “We aren’t always seeing that in our league. I thought we did do a good job of getting them out of system and putting some pressure on them.

“We knew our passing game had to hold up. We had to sideout for a high percentage. In the conference tournament, we were siding out at 65 percent or higher. Tonight we were at [47 percent].”

Cori Crocker and Jess Robinson combined for 17 kills and a .500 hitting percentage to lead Michigan, which will meet No.11 Kentucky on Saturday night for a trip to the Sweet 16. Outside hitter Paige Jones slammed down 11 kills for the Wolverines, who are now 4-1 all-time against NKU. The teams had not met since 2013, and NKU’s one victory in the series occurred in 1980.

Crocker, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker, entered the match hitting .436 for the season. Robinson, a 6-foot-2 freshman middle hitter, was attacking at a .318 clip going into Friday.

NKU’s Abby Kanakry (7) prepares to slam one of her 10 kills against Michigan defender Paige Jones (1) during the NCAA Tournament on Friday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Michigan head coach Mark Rosen said he was impressed by NKU’s style of play and tenacity.

“I thought Northern Kentucky played really well. They’re a great defensive team, and they certainly make you take multiple swings to get a kill,” Rosen said. “I thought our team did a great job of working through that style of play. It’s a very different style than what we’re used to over the last two months.”

Abby Kanakry hammered down 10 kills and attacked at a .316 clip for NKU, which concluded the season with a 19-13 record. Anna Brinkmann finished with seven kills and seven digs, while Laura Crawford added five kills and a team-leading 16 digs.

NKU setters Shelby Olsen (18 assists) and Miranda Wucherer (14 assists) combined for 32 helpers, with Olsen scooping up eight digs. Norse libero Ashton Terrill added 13 digs and a pair of aces, while teammate Reilly Briggs finished with six kills and three blocks.

NKU hit .159 and out-blocked the taller Wolverines 9-4 as Bailey Western and Kaelin Gentile each collected four block assists. Michigan finished with a 44-34 advantage in kills and held a 46-44 edge in digs.

“We worked the middles really well, and that was a huge factor for us,” Rosen said. “I thought Mackenzi (Welsh) did a really good job of finding ways for us to score.”

Welsh, a senior setter, dished out 36 assists and added nine digs.

The NCAA Tournament spotlight didn’t affect NKU, which played the 16th-toughest schedule in the nation. In addition, the Horizon League is ranked No. 6 in the rating percentage index among the nation’s conferences.

“We played a very tough non-conference schedule early, and that helped prepare us for the Horizon League,” Hart said. “We gained a lot of confidence from that non-conference schedule. And every game was tough in our league.”

Michigan’s Cori Crocker (16) attacks at the net against NKU blocker Natalie Hardig (9) and Norse libero Ashton Terrill (6). (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Michigan squeaked past NKU in the first set, 25-22. The opening stanza featured six lead changes and was tied 11 times before the Wolverines pulled away. In the third set, NKU took a 21-19 lead on a kill by Brinkmann and forced Michigan to call a timeout.

The Wolverines responded with a 6-1 run, including a 4-0 spurt to end the match. Natalie Smith capped the victory with an ace for the final point.

Rosen wasn’t a stranger to playing NKU in the postseason. He was the head coach at Northern Michigan in 1997 when the Wildcats defeated NKU in the NCAA Division II Tournament at Marquette, Mich.

“We didn’t want to overlook them,” Rosen said of NKU. “We talked about that from the time we got the draw. (Northern Kentucky) is a team that was here for a reason. They’ve been hot. They won their last eight games, and they did a great job winning their tournament. We had to take them seriously.”

Crawford ended her career with 993 kills, 932 digs and 228 blocks. Olsen finished her career as the third setter in program history to collect more than 2,000 assists and 1,000 digs. She dished out 2,856 assists (No. 9 in NKU history) to go with 1,115 career digs.

“It’s been a great ride,” said Crawford, who was named the most valuable player of the Horizon League Tournament. “Every year for me has been like a baby step to get to here. And being a senior and being here is just the icing on the cake for us.”

Said Olsen: “I think that our program having the experience of now being in the NCAA Tournament going forward, I don’t think it’s going to be such an, ‘Oh, we made it here.’ It’s going to be like we’re expected to be here, and we’re going to be ready to perform better and win a first-round [match].”

Michigan’s Katarina Glavinic (12) is blocked at the net by NKU’s Bailey Western (10) and Anna Brinkmann (3) during the NCAA Tournament in Lexington. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

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One Comment

  1. Rob Terrill says:

    Great article! Thank you!

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