HOUGHTON - Tuesday night, the Michigan Tech University volleyball team put together a pretty good preview of what the future holds in the first set against rival Northern Michigan University.
Then the Wildcats brought the Huskies back down to the present for the final three sets.
After displaying an electric combination of serving and attacking to win the first set 25-20, Northern swept the final three sets 25-15, 25-23 and 25-15 to improve to 10-4 on the season and 4-1 in GLIAC play.
Northern Michigan University All-GLIAC senior setter Kellisha Harley makes one of her 11 digs on Tuesday against Michigan Tech at the SDC Wood Gym in Houghton. Harley finished with 53 assists in the Wildcats four-set conference win against the Huskies. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by David Archambeau)
Tech dropped to 6-8 with a 3-2 mark in conference.
With three freshmen and two sophomores prominently in the rotation, the Huskies consistency waned from run to run and the experience-laden Wildcats, with four senior starters, took advantage.
"From my perspective, I think the two teams actually play very similar in style," Tech coach Matt Jennings said. "Right now, I think they have a little bit more developed talent on their team. They are just older. Our youth is going to be good for us, but right now, Northern has the more seasoned team."
Jennings preaches a fast and aggressive game, and his team showed off its capabilities with four early service aces and 14 kills against just five errors in the opening set.
Three of the aces came from freshmen while first-year outside hitter Aubrey Ficek blasted away for five first-set kills.
The Huskies finished with just two more aces the rest of the way, however, and after a solid .265 hitting percentage to open the match, flailed at .034 and .130 in the decisive middle sets.
"What an exciting environment that Michigan Tech puts together here with the band and all the students that were out tonight," Yoder said. "It was a really volatile place for us to play but so exciting and energetic for the sport of volleyball."
With Tech failing to knock Northern out of its rhythm serving, the Wildcats found their groove on offense and the trio of Sarah Hamilton (18 kills), Kalli Herron (15 kills) and Lina Lopes (13 kills) won the battle at net.
NMU senior setter Kellisha Harley finished with 53 assists, plus 11 digs.
"My two words to Kellisha after set one, where we weren't scoring a lot, was 'Set Sarah,'" said Yoder. "We gave her a lot of chances and Michigan Tech didn't have an answer for her because they were focusing on our two left-side hitters.
"Our transitions and work with Kellisha to stay focused on who to set and when to set got us through some of those long volleys in the third set."
According to Jennings, the Huskies as currently constructed have to keep opponents off-balance with aggressive attacking and serving to protect a blocking game that ranks last in the 16-team GLIAC in blocks per set. When the serving isn't there, the blocking game becomes exposed.
The numbers bore that out again Tuesday as Tech managed just five total blocks against 10 blocking errors. Northern, on the other hand, put up an 11-1 ratio.
"It is our Achilles heel," Jennings said. "We are one of the best digging teams in the conference, but we are now dead last in blocking. It has been a problem for us all year and it just doesn't generate enough points for us. It's something we have been working on all year and we will continue to."
After a spirited third set - the Huskies lost the final two points on a Hamilton kill off the Tech block before Hamilton and Herron combined to stuff Sylvie Rokosh - the Huskies went meekly in the final game when Lopes got on a jump-serving roll the hosts were powerless to stop.
The Northern senior served eight points straight (with three aces) to blow a tied set open as her dipping, jump-serve proved too much for Tech to handle.
"The environment made it difficult for our players to play at a high level early on," Yoder said. "Luckily we got through a few points to push through in set three and then I thought we did a good job finishing in set four."