Going out on top: Northern Michigan University volleyball team revels in winning GLIAC titles

Northern Michigan University’s Alli Yacko, front, bumps the ball during the first set against Michigan Tech on April 3 at the Vandament Arena in Marquette. Watching is teammate Jacqueline Smith, top. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

“I don’t know if any other team in the GLIAC could’ve showed up (Sunday) and beat us.”

— Mike Lozier, NMU head volleyball coach, on the Wildcats’ performance in the GLIAC Championship match


MARQUETTE — At the start of this year’s atypical volleyball season, the Northern Michigan University team wasn’t predicted to finish anywhere near the top of the GLIAC standings.

However, the Wildcats proved the doubters wrong. They not only accumulated a 15-2 record, but finished as conference co-champions during the regular season before rolling to a GLIAC Tournament title with a dominant sweep of fellow co-champ Michigan Tech.

With some GLIAC Championship trophies sitting prominently next to him during Monday’s Zoom interview, NMU head coach Mike Lozier reflected on his team’s impressive performance over the weekend that also included wins over Davenport and South Division champion Grand Valley State.

Northern Michigan University's Madeline Crowley, left, bumps the ball during a GLIAC Tournament semifinal match against Grand Valley State on Saturday at Saginaw Valley State's gym in University Center. Watching the play behind her are the Wildcats' libero Alli Yacko and outside hitter Lizzy Stark. (Photo courtesy GLIAC website)

“I just wanted to make sure that everyone is well aware of what we accomplished collectively,” he said with a laugh, alluding to the nearby trophies. “It was a heck of a run this weekend.

“Even starting on Thursday and being able to honor those players that earned all-conference achievements was really exciting to be a part of. We were practicing right next to Tech on Thursday night and they found out earlier that they had released two (of the honors) at once, they were kind of like celebrating and cheering.

“I was like (to his players), ‘Nobody look at their phones.’ Like ‘I want to do this together.’ So we actually all piled on the bus and then I pulled up the video the GLIAC had released and so we all celebrated together and learned together who had achieved those awards.

“It was a perfect opportunity to kick off the weekend and kind of just never looked back. It was a fun ride.”

When it came down to the impressive sweep of the Huskies, Lozier said his team did some things to fluster Tech and that helped push Northern over the top.

Northern Michigan University volleyball head coach Mike Lozier talks with his players during a timeout against Michigan Tech on Nov. 2, 2019. (Journal file photo)

“We affected them I think in a major way with our play,” he said. “They did not play particularly well. We did some really good things to affect them, especially their right side hitter. We had a blocking scheme that was working really well and forcing her into uncomfortable positions.

“But our tough serving got them in trouble with passing and they just weren’t executing the way they typically do. I felt a lot of pressure on Saturday against Grand Valley in the semis because I’ve been here for four years now and three of the four years, I’ve been in the semifinals of the GLIAC Tournament and hadn’t won it.

“So I felt that pressure to get over that hump. Tech is in a very similar position, right? They’ve been kind of that bridesmaid, never a bride, in the GLIAC Tournament where they’ve made the finals now. I think this is their fourth year in a row and haven’t been able to get over that hump. Actually, the last time they had been swept was in the GLIAC finals last year. So I do attribute a little bit to that.

“They didn’t have (Olivia) Ghormley, again, who was named Attacker of the Year, which is obviously a big loss for them, but ultimately we played really, really well.

“And I don’t know if any other team in the GLIAC could’ve showed up (Sunday) and beat us. We wanted it and we proved it. I think there was a little bit of a chip on our shoulder from that co-champion debate. That motivated us and that’s OK.”

Northern Michigan University's Lauren Van Remortel attempts to save a ball heading out of bounds in the fifth set as teammate Lizzy Stark looks on in a GLIAC volleyball match played against Saginaw Valley State on Sept. 28, 2019, at Vandament Arena in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

When the year began, Lozier said he wasn’t sure if his team was going to end up with two conference championships, simply because there were so many unknowns. However, he did think his team had a lot of potential and they achieved things earlier than expected.

“We knew going into it that if we stuck to the strategy of just trying to get better every single day that by the end of the year, we’d be playing pretty good volleyball,” he said. “Did I think we’d be playing at this level? No. I think we’re ahead of schedule. I thought this was going to be us next year.

“And so to be in this position right now is awesome and for Hailey Wickstrom to have been kind of the first player that’s been with me for four straight years to have the success that she had in that finals against Tech is amazing. And she had like 12 kills and only three errors in a championship match in her last match as a volleyball player at Northern was pretty incredible.”

The tough part for the Wildcats is that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there won’t be a NCAA Division II volleyball tournament for them to compete in. So NMU just has to be content with two GLIAC championships. Lozier said it is frustrating that the Wildcats don’t get to continue their great season, but that he’s relishing what they’ve accomplished.

“Of course we want to play until we either win a national championship or we lose,” he said. “But I told the team right before the match (Sunday), I was kind of reflecting the night before on the season and all those things and I’m really tired. I’m exhausted and I can’t imagine what the athletes are feeling.

“And so we knew this was our last game and the finality of it, I was OK with, I had accepted it. Of course, I would want to be playing in the national tournament, but we’ve known for a long time that wasn’t the case.

“And so this was our national championship game and they performed so well and I’m so proud of them. And it’s been a team effort from the beginning.”

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


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