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With Borchers gone, Northern will have big shoes to fill

Assistant coach Brian Hofman, in his 25th season at ONU, instructs the team at practice on Friday, Aug. 18. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

In volleyball, the setter serves as the extension of the coach on the court. They are likened to a quarterback in football or a point guard in basketball, tasked with being chief communicator and organizer of the team.

They bear a vital role, and this year, ONU head coach Kate Witte will have to find a new starting setter after two-time All-American Ashley Borchers graduated in May.

Witte said Friday that two underclassmen are in contention for the spot: sophomore Madison Broering and freshman Katie Wade.

Whoever wins the starting job will be given the keys to the proverbial Cadillac, one that sports new features but has long been the shiniest on the block.

Under Witte, who approaches her 27th season at the helm, Northern has won 75 percent of its matches and 13 OAC titles, making it to the NCAA Tournament 20 times.

Last year, the Polar Bears went 27-4, finishing undefeated in the conference and winning both the OAC regular season and tournament titles. They advanced to the national tournament for the first time since 2012.

On Tuesday, Northern was ranked 22nd in nation in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll.

The new setter will have to replace Borchers, who was a four-year varsity setter and led the team in assists the past three seasons. Along with All-American honors, she was named OAC Player of the Year last season, finishing her career sixth all-time in school history in assists.

Talk about big shoes to fill.

Witte said it will be “about 10 days” until she knows who will start at the position, and hinted at the notion that it might be a close race until the end. Northern’s first match is on Sept. 1.

While Broering played last year, appearing in just over half of the team’s matches, Witte noted her struggles with consistency early on.

“With Madison, she’s a known quantity because she was in our program last year. She’s very good at the net, she’s a very good blocker, and she’s excellent in the back row defensively,” Witte said. “It’s just the consistency.”

Witte said that Wade has similar athleticism at the net, although she is listed as being three inches shorter than Broering. And while Witte said that Wade has been “a little more consistent, as far as setting is concerned” over the first two days of practice, she said that the freshman will be “inexperienced in understanding what we’re trying to do.”

“It’ll be a challenge for both of them,” Witte said.

In her reserve role last season, Broering said that she tried to learn as much as she could from Borchers. She idolized the senior.

“I was Ashley’s biggest fan, I love everything she does, and she was amazing,” Broering gleamed. “She was a great leader for our team.”

As a setter, Borchers held a prominent role in the ONU offense. Witte’s offensive gameplan is centered around the position.

“The setter position is huge. They are going to contact the ball every rally, so they are the beginning and the end of our offense and our defensive transition,” Witte said. “It’s a big challenge.”

The setter is responsible for distributing the ball to different hitters, depending on who’s hot at the time and where the ball is on the court. They must know where each hitter likes the ball, at what height and place on the court, and timing is pivotal to the chemistry between the setter and her hitters.

Setters must also be able to play the front and back row defensively, and they are the vocal leaders of the team, in constant communication with teammates on where the ball is coming and going.

Broering tries to balance positive and negative feedback towards her teammates in order to keep an honest dialogue on the court.

“I’m always telling my passers, ‘Hey, that was a great pass,’ and positive feedback, along with, ‘Hey, can you adjust this?’ because you don’t always want to just be giving negative feedback,” Broering said. “I try to compliment them as well when they’re doing great things.”

Broering was the first in her class to commit to Ohio Northern, doing so during the spring of her junior year at St. Henry’s High School. Her class would end up playing a major role in the team’s success last season, with all eight freshmen receiving playing time and four establishing themselves as consistent starters.

Outside hitter McKenna Jordan was named OAC Freshman of the Year, while herself and fellow freshman outside hitter Chelsea Huppert were named Honorable Mention All-OAC. Huppert and Jordan were second and third on the team in kills, respectively.

Freshman defensive specialist McKenna Hostetler was second on the team in digs, and outside hitters Sydney Fecko and Sydney Bapst proved their worth with quality performances in big matches.

“We definitely had to make an impact in our very first year here because the volleyball team wasn’t going to have success if we didn’t step up and do things,” Broering said. “So there was a lot of pressure on the freshmen from the very beginning.”

Although Northern will miss Borchers' experience and leadership this fall, she and Claire Heitkamp were the only seniors on last year’s roster. This means that this year’s team will be made up almost entirely of returners, including seniors Haley Potters and Megan Nieszala, who were both Honorable Mention All-Americans last season.

Potters led the team in kills last year with 279, while Nieszala, the libero, led the team in digs with 493. Fellow senior Brenna Dee will contribute this year as well as a defensive specialist alongside Nieszala.

The 22nd-ranked Polar Bears were picked to finish first in the OAC this season in a vote taken by conference coaches on Wednesday. They received 80 points, while second-place Mount Union received 67 and longtime-rival Heidelberg received 65.

Northern’s pre-conference schedule, however, will be brutal. They will face eight opponents who made it to the NCAA tournament last year, including at least one in each of their four weekend invitationals in September. Seven of those eight opponents made it to at least the second round of the tournament last fall, with #3 Washington-St. Louis (who ONU plays on Sept.15) losing in the championship match.

“We have a heck of a September,” Witte said bluntly.

The team hopes to win their second straight OAC title and make it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where they fell last year to Millikin (Ill.). Witte termed the 3-2 loss “disappointing” and both she and Broering called it “a learning experience.” It was the program’s first national tournament appearance in four years, and no one on the team had ever played on such a stage.

“It showed we hadn’t been there in a couple years,” Witte said. “I was disappointed that, as badly as I felt we played, we still had a chance to win it at the end. But I think we can use last year as a learning experience to get back this year and finish things in the end.”

For a program that had won 10 straight OAC championships from 2000-2009, but had failed to do so again until 2016, last season was the materialization of the program’s resurgence. Although ONU was able to qualify for the NCAA tournament twice during that drought, seven years without a conference title was rough on the ultra-competitive Witte.

“It was a long challenge and struggle to get back up. We won 10 in a row and then we struggled,” Witte said. “It certainly teaches you lessons in appreciation and gives you an understanding of how hard you have to work to stay there.”

Despite last year’s success, however, the team’s first-round NCAA tournament exit left a bitter taste in the mouths of the returners. Broering still vividly remembers sitting in the locker room after losing; the feeling of disappointment, sadness, and wanting to do it over again, but differently.

This year, with 12 returning players, the team will have that opportunity.

“There aren’t second chances in volleyball. So this year we definitely talked about that, we remember that,” Broering said. “That’s always going to be inside of us. We aren’t going to let that happen again.”