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Defying predictions: Northern Michigan University volleyball team tops Michigan Tech to post best record in GLIAC

Northern Michigan University’s Jacqueline Smith, center top, goes up for a kill during the first set against Michigan Tech on Saturday at Vandament Arena in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

Up next: GLIAC Tournament, at Saginaw Valley State: No. 2 seed NMU’s first match, 7 p.m. Friday vs. No. 7 Davenport or No. 10 Lake Superior State

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MARQUETTE — At the start of the fall season barely six weeks ago, the Northern Michigan University volleyball team was picked to finish third of six teams in the GLIAC North Division, well behind preseason favorite Michigan Tech.

On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats proved their preseason doubters wrong as they gutted out a five-set victory over the Huskies, 25-19, 19-25, 25-21, 11-25, 15-12, at NMU’s Vandament Arena to win the GLIAC regular season title.

It was a bit of vengeance after Tech prevailed in four sets the night before in Houghton, 23-25, 25-17, 25-14, 25-11, to bring the final match for all the marbles back to Marquette the following day.

Northern Michigan University's Lizzy Stark, center top, attempts a kill with her team surrounding her during the first set against Michigan Tech on Saturday at Vandament Arena in Marquette. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

NMU finished with a 12-2 record, just ahead of MTU’s 9-3 mark in the North. Grand Valley State won the GLIAC South at 11-3.

Next up for Northern is the GLIAC Tournament, which because of coronavirus concerns, will be held in its entirety from Friday through Sunday at University Center and hosted by Saginaw Valley State.

Despite the best record and highest total in the league’s “points rating system,” employed because of the league’s unbalanced schedule, the Huskies earned the No. 1 seed for the tourney as NMU is No. 2.

Apparently, the deciding factor was points per match based off the points rating system, as MTU had 5.125 per match compared to 5.107 for Northern.

Both those schools and three others earned first-round byes as 11 of the league’s 12 teams are participating in the tourney, with overall ninth-place Wayne State not taking part.

Northern opens at 7 p.m. Friday against the winner of an early afternoon match that day between No. 7 Davenport and No. 10 Lake Superior State.

There will be both championship and consolation brackets held Saturday and Sunday, meaning the Wildcats will have a match either Saturday morning or evening, and if they win that day, another match on Sunday.

In Saturday’s match against MTU, Jacqueline Smith led NMU’s attack with 18 kills, while Lauren Van Remortel had 47 set assists. Alli Yacko was the ‘Cats defensive leader with 15 digs.

In the opening set, the teams were tied 8-8 before Northern started to catch fire. The Wildcats went on a 7-2 run at one point before the Huskies cut their deficit to five at 23-18, but Calumet native Hailey Wickstrom made back-to-back kills to get NMU over the top.

The second set went Tech’s way as it started with a 6-0 surge. The Huskies expanded their advantage to 23-15 before the Wildcats fought back with the help of a Smith kill and a Lauren Caprini ace. However, the Huskies eventually tied the match at a set apiece.

In the third, it was Northern that started hot, opening with five straight points and eventually pushed its lead to 15-8 with the help of kills from Smith and Wickstrom. After Tech pulled within three points late in the set, a Husky service error handed it to NMU.

Needing a win to stay alive, the Huskies got it in the fourth set. Tech broke the set open with an 18-5 run to force a deciding fifth frame.

Not surprisingly, the fifth set was tight. The teams traded points through most of it before a kill by Smith and a block by Wickstrom put NMU up 14-10. The Huskies fought hard with back-to-back points, but a kill by Smith clinched the set, match and title for the Wildcats.

In Friday’s match, Northern’s 11-match win streak came to an end despite the Wildcats winning the opening set.

Smith led the Wildcats with 13 kills, while Lizzy Stark had 11. Yacko led NMU with 18 digs as Smith had 13.

Meghan Meyer made six blocks, three of them solo, while Stark and Angelina Negron had three apiece. And Van Remortel made 37 assists.

In the first set, Northern jumped out to a 7-3 lead, making it 12-6 on a four-point run that started with a Van Remortel kill and followed by three straight kills by Smith, each of those assisted by Van Remortel.

But Tech came back to tie it 23-23 before a Stark kill assisted by Van Remortel and Huskies error ended the set in favor of NMU.

After a 4-4 tie and only trailing 13-10 in the second set, MTU pulled away in the second set, doing much the same in the third set after Northern took an early 3-2 lead.

The Wildcats also kept the fourth and final set close to start before a 6-0 run propelled the Huskies again.

Information compiled by Journal Sports Writer Ryan Stieg. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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