Wickstrom finding success with NMU volleyball team

Calumet native has leadership role on Wildcats' team

Northern Michigan University’s Hailey Wickstrom (6) hits the ball against Michigan Tech on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in Houghton, Mich. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan Wildcats volleyball player Hailey Wickstrom, after two years of being an underclassman on a deep squad, is finally getting a chance to show the GLIAC how good she can be. At the same time, she is learning how to lead a young group who just ended a four-match losing streak with a 3-0 win over Northwood on Saturday afternoon.

“That was a much-needed win,” she said. “We were on like a four-game losing streak or something like that. Some of the games, they weren’t good, but some of them, we’re working hard. My coach (Mike Lozier) was just saying we weren’t getting that satisfaction of winning.”

The Wildcats, who lost seven players to graduation after last season, are playing a very young roster this year with only one senior, Sarah Kuehn, as the lone upperclassman with more than nine kills through the first 15 matches of the season. However, the Wildcats did not have the season they wanted last year, even with the experienced depth they had.

After two years of essentially watching the team from the sidelines, the redshirt sophomore and Calumet native Wickstrom is stepping into a leadership role this season with so much young talent.

“We lost six or seven seniors last year,” she said. “It’s definitely a young group on the court, but I am starting to realize that like doesn’t matter too much.

“Last year, I don’t think we had the season that we wanted to and we had a lot of returners. This year, it’s all freshmen and sophomores playing, basically, with a couple of seniors, it doesn’t matter how young you are just matters like what your mindset is.

“What matters is your mindset and wanting to get better. I think it almost kind of gives us an advantage because I feel like we’re kind of looked at more of an underdog-type role. So we just have to go out there and play while the pressure is on the other teams.”

Wickstrom spent her freshman year watching from the sidelines. She played in just one set. That gave Lozier the opportunity to redshirt Wickstrom, something she said was very valuable.

“We had Maddie Whitehead, who was like All-American and I think that was honestly good for me,” she said. “Coming into it, I was a little shocked as to how much more intense the college level is. So it gave me a year. I kind of got to see what was going on, but just worried have to worry about practice and developing my skill.”

As a redshirt freshman, even with Whitehead gone, Wickstrom played in only seven matches. She found herself behind another senior right side hitter. The 6-foot-3 Wickstrom used the opportunity to again soak up as much as she could.

“My second year, I had another talented senior, Maggie Lee, back,” Wickstrom said. “She was injured for most of her college career, but then she was healthier senior year. I was really happy for her. She was a very talented system player.

“My coach gave me opportunities, but I still I played like seven or eight sets or something. What was nice about that was that it gave me the opportunity to kind of get those like jitters out.”

Getting the jitters out was what she needed to get used to the speed and skill of the college game. This year, she stepped out on the court for the season-opening match against Mary in the Keweenaw Classic, and put up eight kills in the match. She followed up that quick start with 11 kills against Upper Iowa, 13 against Southwest Minnesota State and a career-high 17 against Minnesota-Crookston.

“That was a super exciting game. I believe that was the game that my assistant coach Ellen White was like, ‘Okay, so Haley is our go to hitter, so we’re going to keep getting her the ball,'” said Wickstrom. “That was a really exciting feeling to have that role in that game of like, ‘Okay, people know that I can put the ball down, they’re gonna get the ball to me.’

“That was a game where I felt kind of unstoppable, which is a really, really fun feeling.”

Even better, with the opening tournament being in Houghton, Wickstrom got to play in front of her family, close to home.

“It was like my first time actually playing, so my family could come,” she said, “and it was just not too far from Marquette. So it was a good first tournament year, for sure.”

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, the next match saw Wickstrom struggle to find space against Davenport in a three-set loss where she had just four kills. However, rather than get down on herself, she took the match as a learning experience, and since then, she has found a way to put up double digits in kills six times over the next 10 matches.

“(The match against Davenport was) kind of a wake up call that teams do scout you,” Wickstrom said. “When you have a good game, they’re gonna make sure they’re on you, which then that kind of made me realize that my role isn’t necessarily going to be always putting balls down. Maybe it’s just gonna be pulling the block to get like my other teammates opportunities to put the balls down.

“That is perfectly fine with me as well. I’m not as worried about stats. I’m just not worried about our team being successful as a whole.”

Wickstrom loves having the opportunity to play college volleyball, and she appreciates just how few players actually get the chance. Of course, being able to contribute is fun as well.

“I am very, very lucky every day,” she said. “Our coach brought up, at the beginning of the season, how one percent of people who play volleyball at the high school level get to go on to play in college. So it’s those type of things that put it into perspective, like how lucky I am to get the opportunity to keep playing for like four or five more years. Not everyone gets that, and that’s why I try to think about even in the years that I like, didn’t play, it was like, ‘Okay, I still have the opportunity to practice and get better every day.’ I’m very lucky.”