DeKALB – Justine Schepler doesn't rush at the service line. Serving is her skill, her "job." The line is her comfort spot on the court.
This was a different situation.
Northern Illinois had rallied in the third game Saturday against Ball State. With the score tied, coach Ray Gooden pulled his sophomore defensive specialist off the bench to serve. The Huskies won the first two games, but that hardly mattered. They were going to sweep the team standing between them and the Mid-American Conference West title, or play a fourth game. Then, who knows what happens.
"Actually," Schepler said, "I was really nervous."
She told Gooden that before stepping onto the court. His instructions: just bounce the ball once and let it go. Straying from Schepler's regular routine was risky, but it worked. Her final serve hit the back line, ending NIU's sweep, 25-19, 26-24, 25-23.
Schepler's ace gave NIU (23-5, 12-2 Mid-American Conference West) a one-game lead over Ball State (23-5, 11-3) in the divisional race with two matches left. It also clinched the Huskies 11th straight win.
After her the first match-winning ace of her career, Schepler celebrated accordingly.
"I just shimmied," the former Sycamore star said. "I was really excited, and I was hoping everyone else was as excited as I was. I was just speechless.
"[Bouncing the ball once] helped a lot, to not focus on being nervous, or focus on 'What if I miss.' It was, 'Just put the ball on the court.' "
The Huskies had trailed 22-17 in the third game before closing on an 8-1 run. It mirrored the second game, when NIU overcame a late four-point deficit with a 10-4 closing run, ending with Allison McGlaughlin's kill.
"We just knew that if we kept working hard and kept pushing and kept going at them, they were slowly breaking down," said sophomore outside hitter Lauren Wicinski, who finished with a game-high 21 kills and hit .486. "I give [Ball State] a lot of credit, but we know how to win."
Before Saturday, the highest percentage an opponent had hit against Ball State this season was Purdue's .283. The Huskies finished with a .396 percentage. Gooden said the efficiency started before the attacks.
"Our middles did a really good job of finding good space to attack," Gooden said. "Our team did a really good job together tonight."
The Huskies only ace of Saturday's match wasn't by accident. On her first serve, Schepler noticed Ball State libero Catie Fredrich move when her hand hit the volleyball. The second time, she served it right to Fredrich, who had vacated her position.
"I just served it to the open space," Schepler said.
Even with the nerves, she did her job.
"Her teammates have complete confidence in her in how she plays, as well as the staff," Gooden said. "She goes out and does great things for us on a nightly basis. So for her to be in that spot is the perfect person for us in that situation."