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Wildcats set to go: Northern Michigan University opens regular season at Michigan Tech tourney on Thursday

Northern Michigan University’s Cheyanna Pyka, bottom, just misses a dig as teammates Leticia Antunes, right, and Gabriella Martinez look on in the third set of the Wildcats’ exhibition volleyball match against Glen Oaks Community College at NMU’s Vandament Arena on Aug. 21. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“The biggest thing that I learned was that the season is long and it requires a lot to make sure you can sustain that level of play throughout the season.” — Mike Lozier, NMU head volleyball coach, on the Wildcats’ 9-0 start last year that turned into missing the GLIAC Tournament

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MARQUETTE — Volleyball teams all over the country will start serving the ball up this week and all of them want to get off to a great start.

The Northern Michigan University squad is obviously one of them, but the Wildcats want to build on that start, which is something they failed to do last season.

NMU opened 2018 with nine straight wins, including an upset of then-No. 1 Minnesota Duluth in late August. After that, however, the Wildcats were inconsistent for the rest of the season, at one point winning four in a row, but at another, dropping five straight matches.

As a result, they missed the GLIAC Tournament, which was disappointing after such a promising start.

“It’s hard to deny that we had an incredible start and we’re learning how to replicate that every year,” Wildcats head coach Mike Lozier said Tuesday at a news conference attended by multiple NMU head coaches. “So we can come out with that type of energy and fire and it’s a lot easier when you have a bunch of seniors than it is with a younger team.

“The biggest thing that I learned was that the season is long and it requires a lot to make sure you can sustain that level of play throughout the season. Teams get better and they catch up to you. We just have to continue to work to make sure that the team that shows up in September isn’t as good as the team that shows up in October and moving forward.

“That’s, I think, what happened. I think we plateaued and kind of rested on our laurels a little bit and we suffered in the middle of the season because of that. It was a little late before we realized that we had to get better. A fond memory, but the page has been turned to 2019 for sure.”

Lozier will look to several players to be leaders this fall, starting with All-GLIAC Second Team honoree Sarah Kuehn, who had 276 kills and led the Wildcats in blocks.

“Sarah is in her third year here and she has emerged as a leader from Day 1,” he said. “Both in how she acts and then she backs up a lot of that with a lot of the talk that she brings as well.

“Chey Pyka is a captain of ours as well, and she’s a senior. She hasn’t played a bunch on the court, but in terms of her leadership off the court, she’s been great.

“Faces that you’re going to see that maybe you haven’t seen a lot of up to this point are Lizzy Stark, our outside hitter. She did tremendous in the scrimmage that we had here. That was televised, but we also had a closed-door scrimmage with Tech and she did a really nice job in that as well.

“There’s going to be a battle for the setting position. We had a freshman who came in and did some really nice things from Indianapolis, Lauren Van Remortel. I’ll expect her to see some meaningful playing time, and then a Yooper, Hailey Wickstrom, on the right side. She redshirted and didn’t see a ton of playing time playing behind Madison Whitehead, who was an All-American, and then Maggie Liebeck, who did a great job last year. This is going to be her first opportunity to play at meaningful points and she’s done a tremendous job.

“I think those people, amongst a whole list of others, will be the leaders for us at the start of the season.”

The season opens up Thursday with the Keweenaw Volleyball Classic hosted by Michigan Tech in Houghton. The Wildcats will start with the University of Mary from North Dakota at 5 p.m. This will be followed by Friday matches against Upper Iowa and Southwest Minnesota State, and then a Saturday afternoon match vs. Minnesota-Crookston.

“Our first match against Mary, I don’t know much about them,” Lozier said. “We played them my first year here, so (that was) two years ago, and they weren’t great, but you just never know. There’s turnover every four years in an entire program. They could’ve brought in a ton of great players.

“Then we play Southwest Minnesota State, who I think is ranked ninth in the country. So there’s a challenge, playing a top-10 team in the country in your third match of the season. Then we play Crookston and Upper Iowa, two teams we kind of know, but not great.

“The biggest thing for us is to find where we fit in and see where we’re at. You don’t know. The first weekend is always interesting because you have no film on any team. Unless they’re dumb and post their film up online, which they don’t, you don’t have any idea of who is going to step on the floor.

“We know what they did last year and we’ll try to piece it together, but if someone looked at film on our team last year, it’s a completely different team.

“We’re going to have freshmen and sophomores playing that didn’t play at all. So the challenge for us is to hopefully come out of there as a better team and get some wins and kind of find our identity as a team as well.”

Some coaches may not want to play a quality team like SWMS so early in the year as their team may not be ready for that kind of competition, or in the case of the Wildcats last year, they can pull off a big upset and then falter later in the year.

However, Lozier doesn’t see it that way and thinks playing a team as good as the Mustangs will help his squad.

“2018 happened and we had some positive things, but this team for 2019, it’s a positive to play these good teams early on,” he said. “I anticipate we’re going to be playing five or six freshmen and sophomores this year.

“Southwest Minnesota has established themselves as a perennial top team in the country. (We get) to play them, to get a feel for what they’re like in our home territory. I know it’s at Tech, but it’s in the (Upper Peninsula) and it’s a tough travel for them.

“I think it bodes well for us. The hope is that on Thursday, we play well and gain some confidence going into our next match. Win or lose, we learn things about ourselves. That’s what this first weekend’s about. Hopefully, getting some wins and being competitive.

“The last thing we want to do is get our butts kicked, but you just never know. But I feel like, having seeing this team and having a feel on what our league is like and seeing what the top play is like at our level, I think we’re going to be very competitive in every match we play in.”

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