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College Volleyball: Huskies look to send off seniors with a win

Michigan Tech’s Courtney Kurkie hits the ball against Lake Superior State on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Houghton, Mich. (David Archambeau/The Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — It has been a long time since the Michigan Tech Huskies women’s volleyball team has had a senior class with a winning record.

In fact, you have to go to back to the class of 1997 to find the last senior class that finished at MTU with a winning record.

Head coach Matt Jennings cannot underscore the efforts of seniors Courtney Kurkie, Kristine Fink, Rachel Ping and Emilia Widen.

“As a group, they’re just they’re just a fantastic group of young women,” Jennings said. “They’ve contributed in major ways and their time here.”

The quartet have led the Huskies to a 21-6 overall record including a 13-3 record in the GLIAC.

The Huskies host Grand Valley State at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Wood Gym in the GLIAC Tournament in what will likely be the seniors’ final home match.

A redshirt senior, Kurkie, a right side hitter, saw a lot of action as a freshman and a sophomore before giving way to Mariah Sherman in her junior year. Kurkie has played in 75 matches as a Husky, racking up 134 kills in her five years in Houghton.

“She knows the game well,” Jennings said. “She’s been around the system, you know, as long as anybody and she certainly has been able to help her teammates see some things that maybe they weren’t able to before. She’s got a very she had a very calm and poised demeanor.

“She’s incredibly smart. She’s just got a great personality; very, very positive, funny and just very witty. She has she contributes a great deal to the personality of this team.”

Even as a fifth-year player, Kurkie has been instrumental, Jennings said, in helping the Huskies to their fifth straight winning season.

“Courtney has seen the growth from good to making a run in the postseason,” he said. “Her freshman year, we were the eighth seed in the GLIAC Tournament. That was the first year we had made the GLIAC Tournament in my time here.

“Now we’re talking about, you know, our goal being to to win a GLIAC championship and to advance in the postseason. That is what I think represents the growth that she’s seen over her time here.”

Being a team player is something that Jennings and his staff emphasize every year. While Kurkie has been an incredible teammate, Fink has also done a great job of doing whatever is asked of her. In her four years as a Husky, she didn’t make the starting lineup, but developed into a specialist on defense. In the service game, that kept her on the floor whenever possible.

In 84 matches over her career, the third-generation Husky has 297 digs and 30 service aces.

“If you spend any time with her and you get to see that she’s very eager and very, she wants to help all the time and contribute any way she can,” Jennings said. “I think her gratitude of being part of this program from the outset really established her, coachability and her quality team character. I mean, that’s been a huge part of it.

“She here’s the kid who comes into the office and says ‘coach, I’m ready to go, anything you need.’ At the same time, is the first to compliment her teammates that are out there maybe in her stead. She’s the first one to be ‘This person’s doing great.’ You’ll never see her be selfish that way. She’s incredibly selfless.”

Ping and Widen were always a package deal for Jennings. Brought in during the final two seasons that the Huskies featured middles Lauren Emmert and Stephanie Dietrich, two girls who played much taller than they actually were, the duo of Ping of Widen had huge shoes to fill at the start of the 2018 season, when they were thrust into starting roles.

Where Emmert and Dietrich used their size and arm length to their advantage, Ping and Widen have used their speed to theirs. They fundamentally changed the way the Huskies block, which worked out to their advantage.

The duo have also been among GLIAC leaders in hitting percentage during the last two seasons. This season, Widen is fourth in the conference at .318, while Ping sits seventh at .295.

Jennings said he’s extremely proud of how hard Ping has worked to improve for her final season.

“Her spring season, this past spring, was phenomenal,” he said. “She had an A-plus spring. She worked hard. She was really, really good in the weight room and with the strength and conditioning piece. She was, without question, one of our best performers in the spring, every day in practice.

“Rachel Ping has come a long way. She’s tough. When she gets going, and she’s got a little fire under her, she can pop them off and she’s really capable of giving us some competitive attitude out there as well. There’s something about being a senior who just wants to get it done all the time.”

Much of what makes Ping special is her confidence, which she exudes on the court.

“Rachel is a very confident person,” Jennings said. “When she plays a little angry, she’s at her best. She plays with a little chip on her shoulder. She just she’s a little bit more aggressive, and she’s a little bit more assertive.”

On the flip side, Widen has been, as Jennings puts it, incredibly consistent since getting the chance to start.

“(Her) consistency has been phenomenal,” he said. “Her hitting percentage over the last two seasons has been exceptional, if not one of the best in the conference. Her ability to score is is is strong, but her ability to keep the ball; she doesn’t make errors, let’s just put it that way.”

What Jennings likes most in Widen’s game, is the level at which she thinks the game, which allows her to play fast.

“She’s deceptively fast, especially, forward to back, like to the net, in transition, or in system like a 1 or 31, right up the gut. She’s going to beat you to the ball. She’s found ways to score that work for her.”

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