By Kristen Keller
Fans packed the Flames Athletic Center for the Nov. 2 game to honor two women who committed four years to the UIC women’s volleyball team on Senior Night. Hoping for a win, the Flames were unable to deliver, losing to Northern Kentucky in three sets.
“I wish we felt like ourselves,” said head coach Justin Ingram. “I think that part of our issues this year is growing up.”
When the young team took to the court Friday evening, the Norse started the match with the serve. Northern Kentucky took the the lead but the Flames kept it even for most of the game.Whenever one team earned a point, the other came back with a kill or a block for the ball the return to their side of the court.
At one point, UIC was up 16-11 thanks to a serving run from redshirt-sophomore Manuella Conte. Once the score hit 16-12, the Norse took the game into their own hands.
Northern Kentucky’s Shelby Olsen served for six points straight, registering three aces in the process. By the time Olsen finished, the score was tied at 17. It wasn’t long until the Norse continued on another serving run.
This time, Bailey Western went back to the line for the Norse as they led the set 20-18. From there, Western went on a four-point run until freshman Emily Kelly got a kill for the Flames.
UIC attempted a comeback, but Northern Kentucky’s Haley Libs, who led the set in kills for both teams, ended Kelly’s run.
Sophomore Kiera James got a kill to get the ball back for the Flames, but Libs came out swinging during the last point of the match, recording another kill for the Norse and winning the first set 25-22.
As the second set began, the Norse attempted an early lead. While UIC served twice, they served three times. By the midway point of the match, the Norse were up 19-13. Then UIC junior Tatyana Ndekwe went on a four-point run from the line and Northern Kentucky calling a timeout.
Once both teams stepped back on the court, the Flames and the Norse reciprocated serves until Conte took the line, tying the game at 24 points. The two teams battled for points until Northern Kentucky’s Anna Brinkmann took the spotlight.
With her serve, a kill from Western and a hitting error from UIC freshman Clara Lamb, the Norse finished the second set 28-26, leading the match two sets to none over the Flames.
Now the stakes hit high gear. If UIC did not win the third set, the Norse would sweep the Flames and ultimately take over the third-place spot in the Horizon League rankings.
Northern Kentucky was the first team at the service line during the set, and they refused to yield UIC a chance.
The Norse started on a three-point service run before UIC got a chance to serve, but once Ndekwe’s service run ended, Northern Kentucky went on another streak of their own.
Libs served six points in a row to start the game, with many errors coming from UIC’s side. Once Libs finished serving, the Flames were unable to make a comeback.
Freshman Paola Santiago attempted to spark a fire among her teammates with the seven kills she delivered in this set, but it was not enough. By the end of the game, the Flames lost to the Norse 20-25.
“I just said, ‘I need to do something different. I need to help my team to try and win this set,’” Santiago said. “I kept pushing, but we didn’t get the win.”
Santiago led UIC in kills with 11 and also had nine digs. James also helped the Flames with nine kills and Conte controlled the defense with 22 digs.
But this loss leaves the Flames ranked fourth in the Horizon League standings. Regardless of the rest of their season, UIC will make it to the Horizon League championships to try and win the coveted spot to go the NCAA tournament.
Before that happens, the Flames need to make a change.
“I think we have a lot of talent, however, that talent is very inconsistent and that’s a product of not understanding emotions enough and it’s a product of not being mature enough,” Ingram said. “We have to be more adult within our preparation and have composure within competition.”
Following the match, seniors Ali Witt and Carla Salvato were honored for the four years of dedication they gave not only to the women’s volleyball team, but to UIC’s campus.
“They [Witt and Salvato] are tremendous student-athletes as far as contributing at UIC in both academic and athletic areas,” Ingram said. “I am ecstatic that both have had a great experience here and will continue to always be a Flame.
The Flames took on Youngstown State on Nov. 4 in Youngstown Ohio, defeating them three sets to one.
The final home match gave the Flames a big win Thursday when they took on Milwaukee in a Horizon League matchup. UIC swept the Panthers 25-23, 25-20 and 25-13. James led the offense with 13 kills while Witt was close behind with 12.
UIC looks to finish the regular season in an away match against Green Bay Saturday. The Flames have already secured their spot into the Horizon League championship tournament, where they will have a chance to win a big to the NCAA tournament. Their first match of the tournament will be on Nov. 16.