Although she’s just starting her sophomore season, Meghan Niski of St. Charles suddenly has taken on the mantle of a team leader for the volleyball team at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
“I think it’s changed a lot from last year to this year,” she says of her role with the Dukes. “Last year, we had a lot more seniors. … Being more of a leader is what’s changed a lot for me.”
The St. Charles East alumna gained valuable experience as a freshman, starting all 29 matches for James Madison, which finished the season 13-16 overall and 5-7 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“The season went pretty well,” Niski says. “We had some unfortunate injuries throughout the year. Some of our leading players were out with season-ending injuries. … I was really excited I got to play the whole season.”
The 5-foot-11 outside hitter finished fourth on the squad in kills with 246, averaging 2.3 a game. She led all freshmen in the conference in kills and was named to the league’s All-Rookie team. She was third on the club in digs with 269, an average of 2.5 a game, and was also third in service receptions, with a .967 success percentage.
This season, she’s being called on to receive serves even more. Niski and classmate MacKenzie Kleespies have received 75 percent of the serves directed at the Dukes.
“They’re gamers,” James Madison coach Lauren Steinbrecher said of the duo. “They can pass the ball, they can defend, serve, attack. They can just play the game. They understand the game. They’re huge.”
Despite the solid back row play, the Dukes are 2-5 this year.
“It’s been a little bit of a rocky start,” Niski admits. “We had another injury, unfortunately.”
That was suffered by libero Katie Daorai, the team’s only senior. Niski said the team is now starting three sophomores and three freshmen.
“Some people are playing different roles,” Niski says. “Our team’s really young. … There’s going to be some games where it doesn’t go smoothly.”
Niski was a prized recruit after concluding a highly successful prep career that included helping the Saints win a state championship in 2008. But James Madison had a secret weapon to help land the two-time all-state selection in the form of assistant coach Ron Sweet. The Niski family knew Sweet well from his days coaching at Club Fusion in Marengo, where both Meghan and older sister Caroline played club volleyball.
After seven successful seasons as head coach at Kishwaukee College, Sweet joined the James Madison staff in March 2010, two months after Steinbrecher was named head coach.
Niski, who wanted to study business, found other reasons to like James Madison.
“The business school here is just amazing,” she said, noting that it ranks in the top 30 nationally. “The area out here is beautiful, too. Just putting everything together, I knew it would be a good fit.”
Sweet left the program earlier this year to become head coach at Wofford College, but Niski remains committed to the Dukes.
“There really isn’t that much free time,” she said. “You wake up, you go to lift, you go to class, you go to practice, you go to eat, you go do homework, and then you do it all over again.”
It helps to sometimes have family in the stands cheering her on. Her sister Caroline, who had her collegiate volleyball career cut short after two seasons by hip surgery, is now a senior at the nearby University of Maryland.
“It’s nice that my parents can get out here sometimes and see games,” Niski says. “[Caroline] tries to come down here sometimes for some of the games. It’s only like a two-hour drive.”
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To suggest local college athletes deserving of recognition, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.