Volleyball is one of the only sports Kent State has struggled in over the past several seasons.
Those struggles may be coming to an end.
The Golden Flashes put the finishing touches on an unbeaten weekend by defeating Illinois-Chicago in four sets (24-26, 25-20, 25-18, 25-17) Saturday night at the M.A.C. Center, earning the team championship at the Golden Flashes Classic with a 3-0 record.
Senior libero Hannah Herc earned MVP and Top Defensive Player honors for the Flashes, and was joined on the all-tournament team by fellow senior Aleksandra Nowak and junior Liz Reikow.
Kent State has now matched its win total from last season (6-23), and heads into the start of Mid-American Conference play next weekend with a 6-6 record after starting 1-5.
"This is an exciting weekend for our team," said KSU second-year head coach Don Gromala. "The past two weeks, the way that we've been carrying ourselves as a team and playing volleyball, it's been great to watch."
Herc led a defense that limited Illinois-Chicago to a .043 hitting percentage by recording 10 digs in the opening set, the final of which made her a member of Kent State's 1,000-dig club. She finished with a match-high 19 digs and is ninth on the school's all-time list with 1,009 in her career.
"Our goal was just to play well on defense, and we really did that," Herc said. "Whenever we were down, we got back up through our defense. I wasn't even thinking about the 1,000 career digs. I didn't even know that I got it until after the game. My main goal is just to be consistent for the team."
Nowak and Reikow both had double-doubles in the victory. Nowak recorded 46 assists and 12 digs, finishing the weekend at 12 assists and 2.64 digs per set. Reikow used her 6-foot-6 frame to dominate around the net as she totaled 10 kills and 10 block assists.
"They had a great whole weekend," Gromala said of the trio. "Hannah was steady as ever. She's our leader of our floor court, and that's the big part of the turnaround of this team right now. It's a testament to her and the rest of the 'diggers', as we call them. This tournament had some pretty good middles all-around, and Liz was neck-and-neck with them, so we're really happy about that."
Earlier Saturday freshman Bianca Cifaldi and sophomore Bridget Wilhelm posted career-high totals in kills as Kent State topped Eastern Illinois 3-1 (20-25, 25-23, 25-19, 25-17).
Cifaldi led the way with a match-high 18 kills, including five or more in each of the final three sets. Wilhelm totaled 16 kills on just 20 attempts and had a .700 hitting percentage. Sophomore Kelly Hutchison added 10 kills, while junior Lauren Engleman came off the bench to post six kills in the final two sets.
Nowak had a season-best 49 assists to go with nine digs, and Herc tallied a match-high 22 digs.
Kent State opened play at the Golden Flashes Classic by sweeping Binghamton in straight sets (25-22, 25-15, 25-19) Friday night in its 2013 home opener. Hutchison led the attack with a match-high 12 kills, and Cifaldi had 10 kills.
The Flashes begin MAC play with a pair of road matches at Akron on Friday and at Buffalo on Saturday.
"When we reflect back and look at the season, these are the moments that may be a turning point for us," said Gromala. "I hope we can carry it over a bit into the MAC. Our girls are focused, they have their goals, and they know what they have to do to achieve those goals."
Greg Robertson's coaching career is off to a winning start thanks to Jennifer Ha and her teammates.
Ha took first individually, helping the Flashes defeat runner-up Illinois by a stroke to capture the Minnesota Invitational last week in Robertson's inaugural event as leader of the KSU women's golf program.
The Flashes improved round-by-round, shooting a 306 in the opening round followed by a 302. They ended with a tournament-low round of 294 on Tuesday.
"I was happy with the way the team played," said Robertson. "I challenged them a little bit and told them I was going to find out a lot about them in the final round and, sure enough, they came out in the final round and fought hard."
Ha shot 76 and 71 on day one to find herself with the lead going into Tuesday's final round. She heated up on the final 18, shooting a tournament low 4-under 68 to claim a seven-stroke victory with a final score of 12-under 215. Ha had two birdies and an eagle on the final nine and led the field with 13 birdies in all. Her rounds of 71 and 68 were the lowest posted by anyone in the event.
Has was later named Mid-American Conference Women's Golfer of the Week.
"Not just winning it, but the way she won, it's definitely going to help her confidence," said Robertson. "I think it's going to help the team's confidence, too."
Kent State also received help from Josee Doyon, who tied for fourth after shooting an 8-over 224. Raksha Phadke finished in a tie for 14th place with a 230 (+14), Natalie Goodson tied for 37th (238) and Taylor Kim contributed rounds of 77 and 76 to the KSU cause.
"It's good to start off the year with a win," Robertson said. "Now it's time to get back to work and keep making improvements."
The Flashes hit the course again September 27-29 at the Nittany Lion Invitational in State College, Pa.
Kent State (4-4) fell to No. 10 Iowa 6-0 on Friday, and dropped a 6-1 decision to Drexel (4-2) on Thursday.
The Flashes gave up two quick goals to the Hawkeyes, who were then able to net four goals in a five-minute span to begin the second half to win going away even though Kent State actually outshot Iowa 13-12.
Against Drexel, reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Week Julia Hofmann scored the lone goal for KSU, which was outshot just 25-21.
The Flashes will host Ohio State Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Kent State will host seven different wrestling events during the 2013-14 season, including a Beauty and the Beast wrestling/gymnastics event on Jan. 19. The Flashes will entertain Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State on Dec. 19, and will host the 2014 MAC Championships March 8-9.
Kent State rallied to defeat Ontario 11-4 in an exhibition game played last week. The Flashes, under first-year head coach Jeff Duncan, fell behind 4-1 after two innings but plated nine runs from the fourth through sixth innings to take control.
Eric Dorsch was the only Kent State hurler to allow any damage, giving up four runs, although only two were earned. Seven Flashes totaled 11 strikeouts in the contest while walking just one and hitting a pair.
Offensively, Justin Wagler led the way with three hits in four at-bats, including a double, and scored two runs. Sawyer Polen, Alex Miklos and Conner Simonetti had two hits each, and Troy Summers contributed a triple.
Kent State (5-3) earned a 3-0 victory over visiting Youngstown State (1-7-1) on Friday at Zoeller Field.
"I thought it was a great result today," said KSU coach Rob Marinaro. "We had high energy to start the game and capitalized on opportunities early, and that made a big difference."
Just six minutes into the game, Kent State junior Stephanie Haugh took a corner kick that rookie teammate Jenna Helstrom one-timed past the YSU goalkeeper to give the Flashes an early 1-0 lead.
Kent State increased its lead to 2-0 after Youngstown State had a handball in the box. Kent State senior Jessacca Gironda stepped up and nailed the ball into the high left corner of the net in the 38th minute to give the Flashes a two-goal lead heading into halftime. Senior Morgan Mah added her first goal of the year in the second half on a direct kick.
Goalkeeper Stephanie Senn made three saves to earn the shutout, her third of the year.
The Flashes will begin MAC play at Zoeller Field next weekend with matches against Central Michigan on Friday and Bowling Green on Sunday.
Kent State competed at the 19th annual John "Paddy" Doyle/Iona Meet of Champions at Van Cortlandt Park on Saturday afternoon. The women finished fifth overall, while the men came in 11th in the 20-team field.
The Flashes women's squad was led by senior Melinda Sawnor's 14th place finish in 23:23.06, followed by a 22nd place finish by junior Paige Foster.
Leading the way for the KSU men was senior Andrew Goodwin, who finished 37th with a time of 26:33.
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