Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
DEKALB — Can you say impact player?
When it comes to Mid-American Conference volleyball, that’s Lauren Wicinski. The Northern Illinois University freshman outside hitter from Geneva has been that and more for coach Ray Gooden’s Huskies, although she may be the only person around still surprised by that.
“I didn’t really expect this. I didn’t even know if I would play (this season),” Wicinski said this week as she and her teammates prepared for this weekend’s Mid-American Conference Tournament in Toledo.
She was referring to all the attention she has received this season while piling up five MAC West Player of the Week honors. No other player in league history has ever won more than two in a season.
Wicinski will be getting even more acclaim after the announcement at the league’s awards banquet Thursday night that she has been named the league’s Freshman of the Year and its Player of the Year. That’s never happened before in the MAC’s 30-year history of the sport either.
NIU assistant coach Coley Pawlikowski smiles when remembering Wicinski’s arrival on campus last summer.
Pawlikowski is the daughter of Wicinski’s high school coach, KC Johnsen. She coached Wicinski in club ball and she and her husband, Dan, serve as assistants to Gooden.
“She’s a pretty humble kid to begin with and always has been. She would ask Dan and I if she was going to redshirt this season,” said Coley Pawlikowski, who knew the only high school All-American ever recruited to Northern’s program would figure in the mix quickly. Did she ever.
Northern has just one senior (Libero Maddie Hughes of St. Charles North) and two juniors (including setter Kristin Hoffman of Batavia) on the roster.
“I was really nervous, because the (college) game is really, really fast,” said Wicinski, whose parents Gina (volleyball) and Rob (football) were both Huskie athletes. “In high school, you face some good teams but some bad teams, too. Here, everyone is good.”
She didn’t need to worry.
As the 25-6 and fourth-seeded Huskies prepare for today’s 10 a.m. quarterfinal with Eastern Michigan in Toledo, the 6-foot-1 rookie phenom is ranked first in the conference and among the top 10 nationally in three individual categories: fifth in the nation in points-per-set (5.66), seventh in kills-per-set (4.79) and eighth in aces-per-set (0.58).
Hoffman is ranked 17th in the country and second in the league in assists (11.44/set) and Hughes is 98th in the country and fourth in the league in digs (4.51/set)
“I couldn’t imagine two better upperclassmen leading the team,” Wicinski said. “Maddie has great passion for the game and has done a great job leading the team. And Kristin has been a great setter. We’ve had a lot of lunch dates. She’s always there to talk to and help me out.”
Both were honored Thursday night, too, with Hoffman joining Wicinski as an All-MAC first-teamer and Hughes as a second-teamer.
“(Wicinski) has definitely set the bar high,” Gooden said.
NIU has gone 0-2 vs. No. 1 Ball State, 1-0 vs. No. 2 Ohio and 1-1 with No. 3 Western Michigan. Four of its five league losses have gone the full, five-set limit.
“We have four teams in the league with more than 20 wins,” Gooden said. “There are six or seven teams with a legitimate chance of being successful this weekend and we have a real good chance. We’ve done the long haul. Now, it’s time for the sprint.”
The winner gets an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but the Huskies could have a shot at an at-large bid if they reach the final.