North Central women’s volleyball puts the past behind them for a new season
Last season didn’t go to plan for Cardinals women’s volleyball. They lost their final six conference matches, missing out on the CCIW conference tournament altogether. But the moment that final match ended, their only focus was on the road ahead and the ten months they had to prepare for this year.
“They created a mantra that was ‘eyes on the rise’ and they really wanted to go to battle and go to war within the weight room, offseason trainings, spring ball, and then they continued that over the summer,” said head coach Kyle Exline. “When we get into the gym we really wanted to make sure that they were having fun. There was a lot of moments throughout the beginning of preseason where we were looking around the gym and were like ‘wow, they’re battling, they’re competing.’”
“We always say after our last season the next season starts right after that,” reflected sophomore setter Maddi Barickman. “So we really hit the ground running in the spring, we had ‘eyes on the rise’ as kind of our saying and that was just us getting in the right mindset. We’re focusing on the next season ahead and we’re trying to improve on what we did the year before.”
“Our team value has always been an all-in mindset,” said junior setter Emily Stallmann. “I think we came in this year really trying to dial in on that, and we just developed a whole team relationship before the season even started. We knew that we were losing our only senior, and we only had one senior this year, so we needed a lot of the girls in the junior class and even the sophomore class to step up and become those leaders and role models for the girls coming in. I think everybody knew that they had a role to play, and I think they did a really good job.”
Boosting a consistent roster with transfer talent
Losing only one senior meant that the Cardinals women’s volleyball team returned almost their entire roster, including most of their key contributors. Added to the mix were a couple of notable transfers. First, junior outside hitter Aidan Brown, who came from McPherson College where she had been a dominant force at the NAIA level.
“So I actually am roommates with my twin sister, so she came here before me,” said Brown. “I was nine hours away from home and that wasn’t really something I was comfortable with at first, so I was like ‘I need to be with my sister’ and she went here and I looked into the program, I talked to Kyle on the phone, and I just completely knew I wanted to come here; it was perfect.”
“We had our first FaceTime phone call and from there we clicked,” Exline said. “I think the best part of her situation was she came in in January of last year so she was able to experience the entire spring ball with the roster and form that bond with our setters, the passers, the defenders and really understand our system.”
Brown was joined by Taylor O’Malley, a Naperville native who moved from Division I University of Illinois-Chicago and brought not only top level experience but an extremely versatile skillset.
“We actually had her coming in as a utility player,” said Exline of O’Malley. “We knew she was going to be a contributor [in] some facet and just really needed to find where she was gonna be best suited. Then we saw her play in our exhibition matches, we had her set for two sets and we really liked her at right-back and she excelled [there] and we were able to work in the five-one. She was a phenomenal defender, lots of digs-per-set, really strong in serve-receive.”
Cardinals volleyball soars to start the season
The Cardinals got off to a flying start. After winning all three matches at the Dubuque University River City Classic to start the year, they won four of their first five conference matches and sat at the top of the CCIW women’s volleyball standings at the halfway point of the season. The experience the team had playing together and the determination they’d had over the past year were clearly paying off.
“We became really close and best friends through playing with each other, and the new girls came in, we welcomed them with open arms,” Stallmann said. “Our pregame talks in the locker room, running out to the court before every game, we were ready to support each other and have fun so I think just those little moments before games were the most important.”
“Throughout the competitive nature we had in the gym, we really tried to identify what each of the roles were for the student athletes,” Exline said of the team’s work early in the year. “Beginning of the season, where they were all at, and then also we wanted to check the development and growth of everybody on the roster. So mid and late in the season, we started going deeper into the bench and the women were ready to go and that’s what i was most proud of throughout the season was all of our student athletes were ready to go, and to go compete and play at a very high level.”
“Being able to trust each other right off the bat because we had that experience with each other helped a lot, because we didn’t have to adjust that much to playing next to a different person unless it was our two transfers or freshmen coming in,” said Barickman. “We kind of already knew each other and how we play so it was easier to build that trust right off the bat.”
“Coming here I had one goal, and that was to fall in love with the game again,” Brown said. “And I fell in love with the game again and fell in love with my teammates more than I’ve ever been in love with a team before in my life, and the coaches, and just the atmosphere here at North Central.”
An injury setback and a chance for players to step up
Their next match was home against Carthage, a match that with a win would see them solidify their position as best in the conference. However, during the third set leading two sets to none, setter Maddi Barickman suffered an ankle injury. Carthage went on to win the next three sets, and Barickman would miss the rest of the regular season. While a setback both for Barickman and the team, it created an opportunity for other players to step up as the conference tournament approached.
“Being able to sit on the bench, I saw the game in a different way than when I’m actually on the court,” said Barickman. “I was able to see it slowed down, almost, because I feel like on the court you have that adrenaline and everything is go-go-go-go. Sitting on the bench I was also close to the coaching staff and seeing what their thought process was throughout each point, which is something you don’t necessarily really catch when you’re on the court.”
“The most important thing is that we have a ‘next player up’ mentality,” Exline said of the team. “Whether it’s an injury, or academic, we need to make sure that whatever happens our first string, second string, third string are ready to go in and play. Ann [Gawron] a did a phenomenal job coming in ready to go. The COVID year when we played in the spring of 2020 she was our starting setter running a five-one and we were 3-0 during that timeframe. So the team had all the confidence in her stepping into that situation.”
“Every time we were in the gym we played intentionally,” said Stallmann. “We knew no matter who filled that role or came off the bench, we needed to have confidence in them; just having confidence in the girls and whoever was gonna be on the court.”
A disappointing end, but new record number of awards
The Cardinals’ strong start meant they still qualified as the fourth seed in the CCIW Women’s Volleyball Tournament, meaning they would host a quarterfinal match against Augustana after missing the tournament entirely the year before. The Vikings would win in four sets, ending North Central’s season. There will still honors to be had for the Cardinals, however, as a program record three players were named to the CCIW All Conference Teams: Maddi Barickman and Aidan Brown to the 1st Team, and Emily Stallman to the 2nd Team.
“It’s really special because I came here, again, trying to find the love of volleyball again so I wasn’t necessarily shooting for that goal,” Brown said. “Everybody is here for a common goal and purpose in life. We don’t get paid for this, so we’re here for the love of this.”
“It means a lot to me, especially just because I know all work I’ve done to get here but also it shows a lot with our team,” said Barickman. We had three all-conference selections, which is something that North Central’s never had for women’s volleyball so I think was really special and shows how good our team was this year even though we didn’t win that first game of the conference tournament. But we hosted it, and proved to people what we could do, and so I think that meant a lot to me to see not only my success but that everyone else was succeeding to so that’s awesome to see.”
Resetting for another year ahead with even loftier expectations
For the second consecutive season, the Cardinals roster featured only one senior which will allow continued continuity into next year as the players look to continue to build up the program. They can now look back and see how large a step they made in the last twelve months, and now the goal is to progress even more in the year to come led by what will be a robust senior class.
“The only way we can go is up from here,” said Stallmann. “I think everybody wants to continue to grow and get better than we previously have [been] and I think this year showed that we can do it. Just keeping that all-in mindset and pushing forward to do better in our upcoming years.”
“Back at my old school I kind of had to pull a lot of weight,” Brown said. “But here everybody’s pulling their own weight and you trust the person to the left and right of you, and it’s just something that I’m not really used to but adapted well and I couldn’t have been more thankful coming into this program.”
While there will be consistency on the court, there is change coming on the sideline. After serving as assistant coach for both Cardinals men’s and women’s volleyball since 2019, Naperville native and North Central alumna Sydney Cheatham-Carlone will take over as women’s head coach next year as the 10th coach in program history.
“We’re at the point now where we are able to compete against and beat nationally-ranked opponents,” said Exline, who will continue as head coach of the men’s volleyball team. “Pretty soon, we’re gonna be on that stage and the women have that experience now of playing against high-level teams across the country, but more importantly of being at the top of the conference and being in discussions at the top of the conference. That is the new standard now that we have set for our program, that we’re here and now we go to our next goal and that’s very important for the student athletes to continue to work and continue to believe in the vision and be 100% all in, and that’s going to get us and the program to where we want to be.”