Striving for a tournament bid

NMU spikers look set for a successful season

Northern Michigan University’s Sarah Kuehn keeps her eye on the ball as it comes over the net during a game against Lake Superior State on Sept. 16, 2017, at Vandament Arena. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University volleyball team had a major turnaround last season and it started at the top as Wayne State assistant coach Mike Lozier took over the program.

Success came quickly as the Wildcats went from ninth place to second in just one season. They also hosted a GLIAC Tournament match (a win over Davenport) and came just short of making the NCAA Tournament. Not only that, but NMU had two honorable mention All-American honorees in Kayla Chosa and Madison Whitehead, while leading the nation in blocks per set.

The turnaround may have been surprising to some, but it wasn’t to Lozier. He said he wanted to change the culture and that his players bought into it quickly.

“I tried to reserve judgement until we got in the gym, but I can tell you, and the team would back me up, that I said before the spring season (early 2017) that I thought we’d be the second-best team in the conference,” he said. “That was it and I wanted to host a conference tournament match, which we did and we won, and I wanted to make the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, we didn’t achieve that goal, but it came down to the last day and we were literally watching the regional rankings come out. From the beginning, I knew that we had a really talented group and honestly, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t been winning previously with the talent they had. I think it was just a shift in culture that they needed and we provided that.”

Chosa and Whitehead were a huge part of that success and Lozier praised them for buying into his plan, which isn’t an easy thing to do as seniors.

“The one year I was here, they were incredible,” he said. “Not only were they great players, but they were good teammates. As seniors, especially with a new coach, I imagine it’s really tough because you’ve been taught for three years a certain way and now we’re asking you to change when you only have one year left. They wanted to be blank canvases. They wanted to change. They wanted to improve as players and it showed. Kayla, when we talked to her at the start of the season, her goal was to be an all-conference player, but she bought in enough and she’s talented enough that she became an All-American. Madison, I think, had higher aspirations. She was already an all-American her sophomore year. So I think she knew what she was capable of. It was just a matter of making sure that she accomplished her goals.”

It won’t be easy to replace Chosa and Whitehead, but Lozier’s got a good crew returning and that starts with two All-GLIAC members in Sarah Kuehn and Leticia Antunes as well as libero Rachel Braunschweig, who was fifth in the conference in digs.

“Coming back, we have Sarah in the middle and she transferred from (Minnesota State) Mankato last year,” Lozier said. “She led the conference in blocking (per set) and hitting percentage. So she’s obviously going to be a key factor for us and she’s an incredible leader. She was named a captain by our team and Rachel was also named a captain. Leticia is on the outside and was second team all-conference. She was a great player her freshman year and she’s been working hard all summer, so we kind of expect her to be even better than she was last year. We have a whole list of supporting casts and it’s going to take all of them to reach our goals.”

While some teams might be reserving starting spots strictly for upperclassmen, Lozier is expecting all of his incoming freshmen to compete for playing time. He also expects the team’s ball control to be much better this year and be one of its strengths.

“We recruited players who pass the ball very well and that’s going to allow our offense to be in-system,” Lozier said. “We’re going to have more options every time we touch the ball, who to set and what system to run. That’s probably the biggest thing. Quite honestly though, I’m going to reserve the right to change that based on what shows up in the gym that first day during preseason. If we recognize we have other strengths and other things to focus on, we’re going to do that in order to be as good as we can be.”

The Wildcats definitely have a lot of potential to be as good as they can be, but the conference race will be a tight one. In the preseason poll, defending GLIAC champion Ferris State was picked to win the North Division, while Wayne State was the pick in the South. Michigan Tech (North Division) and Grand Valley State (South Division) were predicted to finish second in their respective divisions and the predictions were about what Lozier expected.

“With Ferris, it’s hard to argue that they’re not going to be the best just because in the recent history, they have been,” he said. “Wayne returns a very large portion of their team, so I expect them to do well. There’s also Grand Valley and of course, our nemesis Michigan Tech. They’ve done some great things to get better as a program and I expect them to sustain that level of play.”

The preseason is approaching and Lozier said the first thing the team is going to focus on is its culture and making sure the newcomers understand the expectations of the program as well as their roles on the team.

“It’s going to be making sure that those six girls that are coming in understand how we do things,” he said. “How they handle themselves not only on the campus, but in the community and that we’re building that team dynamic because in volleyball, you have six people on a very small surface and there needs to be trust in that. So it’s important that they trust each other, they believe in each other and they support each other. That they understand their roles at any given moment and that they do them to the best of their ability.”

Overall, Lozier thinks that he’s got a great team put together this fall and that he believes he has a team that can earn that NCAA bid that the Wildcats just missed out on last year.

“Every year that will be my goal,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever tell the team things that I didn’t truly believe and I told them that we have a team that can compete to make the national tournament. It’s up to them to put the work in to make sure that we’re improving at a fast rate because we are bringing in more younger players that will be expected to compete for positions. So they need to be up to speed and working hard.

“The reason I came here and I live apart from my wife to do this job was because I saw a program that had the potential to do some really incredible things. To this point, the administration and the university hasn’t let me down so I have no reason to believe that will change. I’m going to continue do the best job I can in my capacity but if our girls do the right things, we should compete for that national tournament spot for sure.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.