Created:Wednesday, September 15, 2010 11:42 p.m.CDT
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Living up to the hype

By JEREMY WERNER - jwerner@daily-chronicle.com
Freshman Lauren Wicinski (center) has helped lead the Northern Illinois volleyball program to an 11-1 mark to start the season. (Beck Diefenbach – bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com)

DeKALB – Kristin Hoffman isn't supposed to like Lauren Wicinski.

See, Hoffman, an NIU junior setter, is from Batavia High School, and Wicinski graduated last spring from Geneva High School. And while the schools are only about three miles apart, there generally is mutual disdain among the Batavia Bulldogs and Geneva Vikings.

But ever since Hoffman first saw Wicinski play as a 5-foot-8, "stick skinny" high school freshman, she knew she wanted to play with the young but outrageously talented outside hitter.

Hoffman finally has gotten her chance as Wicinski, a freshman, joined the Huskies this fall. And the Huskies' first-ever high school All-American has lived up to the hype, leading a resurgent NIU squad (11-1) in kills (177), points (222) and service aces (34).

"She just plays effortlessly," said Hoffman, who's averaging a career-high 11.03 assists. "She does some things and looks surprised sometimes. Sometimes she does stuff and I'm like, 'Wow! I can't even believe she's on my team and I get to set her.

"She gets kills off balls that you think are terrible, and somehow she does something with it."

NIU coach Ray Gooden nearly did backflips when Wicinski chose the Huskies over scholarship offers from Ball State, Illinois State, Marquette and others.

Wicinski's hot start – she earned the Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week honors after her first week of collegiate competition – still has Gooden pinching himself.

The freshman even caught the eye of NIU football coach Jerry Kill, who recently took in a Huskies game at Victor E. Huskie Court.

"She's one of the biggest recruits we've ever had here, and right now she's living up to her billing," Gooden said. "It's just nice to see her go out there and do what she's capable of doing. Hopefully she'll continue to do that and go a step further."

Wicinski leads a highly touted five-woman freshmen class that includes starting middle blocker Sarah Angelos of Waukegan and defensive specialist Justine Schepler of Sycamore.

Wicinski said her class has adapted quickly to the college game because Gooden brought the freshmen on campus in July, the earliest in his nine-year tenure with the Huskies.

"It was a real easy transition coming into preseason," Wicinski said. "We already knew the team and it was like an earlier start off."

Hoffman said the team has better chemistry than during her two previous seasons.

"When we're playing," Hoffman said, "it's never like, 'Oh, they're freshmen. The rest of us our older.' It's just six people plus the girls on the bench, who have been the most encouraging girls I've ever played with."

Wicinski's commitment to the Huskies really wasn't a big surprise. Her father, Rob, played football at NIU from 1981-85, and her mother, Gina, played volleyball for the Huskies from 1983-87.

"First off, I wanted to come here," Wicinski said. "But the girls were so much nicer here. They were all nice (at other colleges), but they were so personable here. I did not experience that anywhere else."

Playing at NIU also allows Rob, the football coach at Geneva, to take the half-hour drive to see his daughter play during the busy fall prep season.

And good thing. She's put on quite the show to start her NIU career.

"This is probably the funnest volleyball I've ever had," Wicinski said. "It's just been a great experience. I couldn't ask for anything better."

Will the NIU football team play for the MAC title this year?
Yes
No
Too soon to tell