Last year Northern Kentucky was so close, losing in the Horizon League tournament title match. So the Norse played in the Triple Crown Sports Women’s NIVC and lost in the first round to Miami, Ohio.
This year, after finishing fourth in the Horizon, the Norse (19-12) knocked off Illinois-Chicago in the first round of the Horizon tourney and then upset top-seeded Wright State and then No. 2 Milwaukee to sweep their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since it moved to Division I and became eligible in 2016.
Now that means huddling around and watching the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday to see where the program winds up.
“The university is very excited and doing a lot of things to promote our program and our championship,” Northern Kentucky coach Liz Hart said. “Our players will come back after being able to go home for Thanksgiving for a day or two and then we’ll get back to work. To celebrate the selection show we have a gathering together on campus for families and supporters of our program.”
Hart, who played at Northern Kentucky and graduated in 2008, is in her 10th season at the helm. The way the league schedule was playing out, the signs were not pointing toward seeing her players in this position for the first time.
It was November 1 and the Norse’s setback to Green Bay dropped them to 4-7 in Horizon play. They had lost five of their last six outings and it wasn’t getting any easier. The next three contests were against opponents Northern Kentucky lost to in the first meetings.
It wasn’t supposed to be going like this.
Not after last year, since the Norse lost just one significant player from last season — outside hitter Haley Libs — and how well the team did in this year’s preseason. Northern Kentucky picked up a victory over Cincinnati, took Western Kentucky to five and lost to Notre Dame in four.
“We had a great preseason. We scheduled very, very tough,” Hart said. “I thought our players did a great job coming through preseason. We knew our conference was going to be good but I don’t know if we knew it was going to be that good.
“Going into conference play we were able to pick up a couple of wins but we lost some tough matches. It was really tough for us and I think we lost our confidence a bit. We weren’t finishing games very well and we had to learn and push to win them. It was a good lesson for us. We got back to work. We didn’t let down and we started training harder than we ever did. These past five, six weeks you can see the training coming through.”
The turnaround started with a sweep of UIC, but the Norse really took off after beating Oakland and Milwaukee before closing league play with another victory over Cleveland State.
It left them 9-7 in Horizon play heading into the tournament.
“Definitely once we got on our winning streak you could feel the confidence building up,” senior outside Laura Crawford said. “The trust between us really developed through that winning streak as well. I had a strong gut feeling we were going to get something rolling and here we are.”
Downing UIC once more to open the league tournament earned Northern Kentucky a third matchup with Wright State, which was 2-0 against the Norse. Northern Kentucky then beat Wright State in four games to reach the final.
There was no letdown in sight as Northern Kentucky powered its way past Milwaukee 25-17, 25-20, 25-13 and right into the NCAA field of 64.
Sophomore outside Anna Brinkmann led the Norse attack in that one with 11 kills. Redshirt-freshman middle Abby Kanakry added nine more kills while Crawford and freshman outside Reilly Briggs each had seven. Senior Shelby Olsen finished with 19 assists, as did sophomore Miranda Wucherer.
“Getting everyone to buy in to what the coaches were saying and buying in to going hard every single day helped in the championship match, especially in what we did because we bought in to every single point,” Olsen said. “There wasn’t any time we laid off a point and that’s been our struggle this season.”
Brinkmann leads the Norse with 362 kills followed by Crawford with 332. Kanakry has the highest hitting percentage at .272 with junior Ashton Terrill holding down the defensive duties and leading the way with 593 digs. Crawford and Olsen join DS Raven Barleston as the three seniors on the roster. Their careers began with a third-place finish in the Horizon but the team went backwards the following year and ended in sixth.
Not giving up on 2019 when it was veering off track as given not only the seniors but everyone else a new challenge to deal with. It involves keeping sharp while enjoying Thanksgiving, something that proved difficult in 2018.
“Last year we were in the NIVC and we had the mindset the season was over and we weren’t focused at all actually,” Olsen said. “This year, since we had that experience we are going home knowing that when we come back we need to be focused and ready to play. It’s not just about getting to the tournament and it being over. We want to push to win.”
No matter what the draw looks like Sunday, Northern Kentucky knows it’s going to be a heavy underdog.
But the Norse will also remember earlier this month things weren’t looking too bright. And entering the tournament on an eight-match winning streak will no doubt have Northern Kentucky confident and thinking it might be able to do something special.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Hart said. “We are still coming to grips with everything. It’s seems really surreal. I’m really proud of the girls and our team. They did a really great job. We played some of the best volleyball we have all year these last three matches.”