Going dancing: The coaching staff reflects on volleyball season which is already very special for the Huskies
HOUGHTON — After beating the Northern Michigan Wildcats for the second time in two weeks last Saturday, a goal on the long-term checklist Matt Jennings had when he took the open head coaching position with the Michigan Tech Huskies six years ago came into focus. Despite a loss to Ferris State in the GLIAC Tournament final on Sunday, the Huskies found out Monday that they qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
When the Huskies (20-10 overall), who are the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, take the floor on Nov. 30 against No. 1 Lewis, it will be the first time the Huskies have played a NCAA Tournament game since 2009.
When he first heard the news, Jenning lept out of his chair in what has become a viral video on Instagram thanks to his honest emotions. With a couple of days to process the news, he is simply proud for his team.
“It just feels excellent,” said Jennings. “It feels relieving in a way. I felt like they just deserved it so much”
Jennings, who took over after the 2011 season in which the Huskies went 2-25 overall and 0-19 in the GLIAC, had two very reachable goals for this year: win 20 matches and host a GLIAC Tournament game.
The team accomplished one goal, hosting a GLIAC Tournament game, last Wednesday when they downed the Tiffin Dragons in three straight sets. They then accomplished the other when they knocked off the Wildcats again.
THE TURNING POINT
The Huskies have been strong throughout the season, but a two-game stretch in mid-September changed the course of the season. The Huskies dropped a 3-1 decision at home to the Wildcats on Sept. 19 and then a 3-0 decision at Ferris State just three days later.
When the team took to the bus for the drive to Northwood the next morning, the team announced to each other and the coaching staff that the streak would end there.
“We were on the bus right after losing to Ferris, the next day, and the girls were just kind of agitated,” said assistant coach Cindy Pindral. “The girls were just like, ‘You know what, we’re done.’ We turned around and crushed Northwood.”
The Huskies won 3-0 against the Timberwolves.
Jennings is especially happy for his senior class. All four, middle blockers Stephanie Dietrich and Lauren Emmert and defensive specialists Halie Hart and Elle Heinonen, have had tremendous impacts on the program during their four years on campus,
“In the immediate, they stepped up huge at the end of the season,” said Jennings. “Three of their four years were winning seasons. I think they were determined to take it to the next level and I am glad to see them do that.”
Dietrich and Emmert have both worked very hard to shore up the Huskies’ net presence. When the Huskies faced the Wildcats the first time, the pair combined for just ½ of the team’s one block. In comparison, the Wildcats’ Kayla Chosa had two solo blocks and eight block assists herself.
In the semifinal match, Dietrich and Emmert combined for three solo blocks and six block assists. The team finished with three solo blocks and 12 block assists. In comparison, the Wildcats had two solo blocks and 14 block assists.
“Lauren and Stephanie, at the net, have had moments that have been season-saving plays,” said Jennings. “They stepped up and made plays that extended our season.”
During their four years at Michigan Tech, it has been hard to separate Hart and Heinonen. The two have been on the court for nearly every set the team has played throughout their careers and both have had tremendous impacts on the way the Huskies track down serves and attacks.
Heinonen, who has been the model of consistency throughout her career, broke former teammate and now graduate assistant Jacqueline Aird’s school record for digs in a season with 551. She was also honored by the GLIAC with Honorable Mention.
While she doesn’t have the numbers that her partner-in-crime has, Hart has also been an integral part of what the Huskies have done defensively.
“I think it goes, in part, to the positions that they play,” said Jennings. “Together, they have transformed the back court.”
When Jennings was looking at his incoming class of two outside hitters, Olivia Ghormley and Anna Jonynas, a setter, Laura DeMarchi, and a defensive specialist, Megan Utlak, he figured they would all have a chance to play. He did not think they would have an immediate impact.
“She’s an impressive young person,” said Jennings. “There is just another level on that kid. The way she kind of commands the offense…we are lucky to have her, for sure.”
DeMarchi swept in a month before the season and earned the starting job. She has never looked back, racking up 1,178 assists. She was named both Freshman of the Year and Setter of the Year by the GLIAC last week for her efforts.
Ghormley picked up 284 kills as one of the Huskies three “pins” as Jennings calls them. She has proven the ability to take advantage of what opponents give her, as she picked up 22 kills in a match against the Dragons early in the season.
Unfortunately, she has also shown some inconsistency. However, that proves she has room to grow as she matures as a player.
Jonynas and Utlak have both been strong servers and have done a great job of helping the Huskies in serve receive. While DeMarchi leads the team in service aces (39), Jonynas is second with 31 and Utlak is fifth with 19.
“Both have added to serve receive,” said Jennings. “We are at a 2.2 passer rating, out of 3.0. That was our team goal. We are a good passing team and those two have a ton to do with it.”
Alongside Ghormley, sophomore MacAulay Peterson and junior Mariah Sherman have both taken huge strides this season.
Peterson leads the team in kills with 364. She has a hitting percentage of .228 and was named to the GLIAC Second Team.
Sherman has 310 kills and has been hitting at a .296 clip. She was honored with a GLIAC First Team spot for her efforts.
“They can score a lot of points,” said Jennings. “I think they each kind of played in their experience level and contributed very well.”
The Huskies’ opponent in the NCAA opener is the Lewis Flyers. The Flyers have been excellent all season, going 31-2.
The Flyers have defeated Ferris State twice this season, winning 3-0 both times. They also swept Findlay and Grand Valley State.
One of the two losses the Flyers have this season came at the hands of Bellarmine, 3-2. The reason that is significant is the fact that the Huskies downed Bellarmine, 3-0, at the Midwest Region Crossover back on Oct. 13.