Created:Monday, July 11, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT

National treasures

Northern Illinois volleyball outside hitter Lauren Wicinski (right) hits against DePaul during a game last season. Wicinski and teammate Sarah Angelos will represent the USA Junior National Team in the European Global Challenge over the next two weeks. (Scott Walstrom – NIU Media Services)

DeKALB – Lauren Wicinski had never traveled beyond an Arizona vacation. Sarah Angelos did one better. She visited Canada once.

With a lack of international traveling experience, the two Northern Illinois volleyball players jumped at the opportunity to compete for Team USA during this month’s European Global Challenge.

“Going to Europe is a huge thing,” said Angelos, a sophomore middle blocker. “It’s something a lot of people want to do in their lives but don’t get the chance. I can’t wait to see other countries and get to appreciate what we have here.”

Wicinski and Angelos found out in February they were selected to the USA Junior National Team from a pool of college players throughout the country. Excited for the opportunity, Wicinski – the reigning Mid-American Conference Player and Freshman of the Year – said she didn’t think it would ever come. Now, their five-month wait is over.

The Huskie duo leaves today for Europe, where they will play matches in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia over the next two weeks.

“We would talk about it occasionally, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to go,’ ” Wicinski said. “Now that it’s here, it’s like, ‘I can’t believe how fast it went.’ I wasn’t really expecting that.”

It’s not uncommon for NIU players to compete in international tournaments during the summer. Mary Kurisch just returned from a tournament in China, one summer after playing in Brazil. Huskie coach Ray Gooden said at least one NIU player has competed overseas each of the past five summers.

With plenty of teammates who had international traveling experience, Angelos and Wicinski were able to gather advice that helped them prepare. The biggest advantage, Wicinski said, is having each other.

“I think I would be so scared if I didn’t have Sarah to fly over there with me,” Wicinski said, “because what am I going to do on a 12-hour plane ride all by myself? I would have no one to talk to.

“If I forget something, she’s there. If I have a bad game, I have someone to talk to about it. It’s going to be nice to share that experience with somebody else on my team.”

Gooden said Kurisch returned from China a different player. The outside hitter/middle blocker was able to process information better and had more confidence. He attributes that to getting a fresh perspective of herself and the game.

And he expects similar results from Wicinski and Angelos after they make their first trip overseas.

“What they get the chance to do is just (compete outside) the NIU environment,” Gooden said. “And there’s nothing wrong with our environment, it’s just nice to bring in fresh perspectives.

“Different levels of learning, because they get a chance to play for different coaches, and all of those coaches I respect wholeheartedly. And a lot of the players they’re going to play against are very good. So they’re going to have a different look on it as opposed to always doing the NIU grind.”

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