Prior to joining the Northern Illinois women’s volleyball team, Maddie Hughes bounced between positions for her club and high school teams.
She was a hitter at St. Charles North, but when that season ended she typically moved to libero.
NIU coach Ray Gooden saw something in Hughes at the latter position and, now in her junior year for the Huskies after narrowing it down to one position, the former North Star is being consistently recognized as one of the top defensive players in the Mid-American Conference.
“She’s always had a tremendous knack for reading other teams’ attackers,” Gooden said. “She’s worked very hard on her lower body strength so that she can play in her defensive position for a long period of time. She can stay in a play for a long period of time and that’s huge for her as a defensive player.”
Hughes has been named MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week three times this season, the most recent nod coming on Oct. 19.
“We never get too much into the individual accolades, but it’s nice to see her recognized by the conference for her work throughout the season,” Gooden said. “It’s telling and she’s definitely deserving of those awards.”
Hughes leads NIU with 414 digs in 23 matches. She also leads the conference in that category.
Those numbers were certainly padded by a two-match stretch against Central Michigan (Oct. 9) and Eastern Michigan (Oct. 10) when Hughes totaled 58 digs in back-to-back Huskies’ wins. Her 30-dig match against Eastern Michigan was her second-highest total of the year behind a career-high 34-dig match in a loss to Western Michigan on Oct. 1.
“It’s just been great for her to orchestrate our defensive side of the ball,” Gooden said. “In those matches she’s always able to take control of the court.”
Looking inwardly, Hughes attributes what she’s done this year to finally grasping college volleyball at the Division I level.
Her coach has seen her ability to anticipate and read opposing offenses as a defender, but from watching tape to learning the pace of the college game, there was still an adjustment period, especially considering she didn’t spend her high school years at a consistent position.
“I think the biggest difference for me has been just understanding the game more,” Hughes said. “When you’re a senior in high school you think you understand a lot of it, but then you come to college and it’s so much faster.”
Hughes’ sustained run of success at libero has contributed to a recent hot streak for the Huskies.
They’ve won six of their last seven matches, including a stretch of five straight from Oct. 3-17 that revived their hopes for a solid finish in conference and into the conference tournament.
At 12-11 overall and 6-4 in conference, NIU is hoping to earn favorable position in the tournament by finishing the regular season in the top four to set up a championship run.
“We’ve been doing pretty well with that five-win streak,” Hughes said. “I think it was just because we’re all playing pretty solid. We lost to Ohio, but they were first in our conference, and we’re just hoping the rest of the season keeps going like it has been lately.”
• Kevin Chroust writes a weekly On Campus column on area athletes competing in college. To submit a column idea, e-mail him at email@example.com.