Lauren Wicinski is spending this week preparing for possibly the biggest volleyball match of her career in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I national tournament. She’s also spending this week taking final exams for the fall semester at Michigan State.
Is it difficult trying to do both?
“Oh, yeah. It’s definitely stressful,” the Geneva graduate and Michigan State senior said. “You’re on the road. We left Wednesday for the tournament [first round]. I missed my Thursday and Friday classes, and that’s hard before finals week.”
Wicinski and her teammates traveled to Lexington, Ky., for the first round of the tournament. They wound up with a little extra time to think about both finals and their opening match against Ohio when bad weather forced its postponement from Friday to Saturday.
“You’re at the hotel. You have to do homework and also prepare for the big match you have,” Wicinski said. “It’s just a balancing act.”
Wicinski did a good job focusing on matches over the weekend. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter had 16 kills in Michigan State’s 3-0 sweep of Ohio, as well as nine digs and four aces. On Sunday, she hammered home 16 kills and came up with 17 digs as the Spartans downed Kentucky in four games.
The victory over the Wildcats on their home court put Michigan State in the Sweet 16, which is shaping up to be virtually a Big Ten Conference tournament.
“It’s just a brutal conference,” Wicinski said. “That’s kind of showing right now. We’re one of seven Big Ten teams still left in the tournament.”
Another Big Ten team still left is No. 1-ranked Penn State (30-2), which the Spartans (23-11) will face Friday for the third time this year.
“We’re just going to have to go in there and be aggressive. They’re big players, but so are we,” Wicinski says. “We just have nothing to lose. That’s basically our motto. … We’re going to go out there and play the best we can play and leave it all out there.”
Wicinski said Michigan State handed the Nittany Lions their only conference loss.
“I think we’re probably the one team they didn’t want to see in the tournament,” she said.
The Spartans defeated Penn State in five games at State College in September.
The Nittany Lions returned the favor by sweeping three games in East Lansing in early November.
“They came in with a lot of anger,” Wicinski said, recalling that second match. “We weren’t ready for it. We tried to weather the storm a little bit. We weren’t fully prepared like we should have been.”
Michigan State’s victory at Penn State was part of a fast start to the season for the Spartans. They won 17 of their first 18 matches. The home loss to Penn State was part of a skid that saw Michigan State drop five of six league matches.
One constant for the Spartans has been the play of Wicinski, who transfered there after playing her first two years at Northern Illinois. Her 2,408 career kills rank her 13th in the NCAA all-time records book. That sort of production almost certainly will attract the attention of a European pro team. Wicinski said volleyball is a major sport in countries like Germany, Italy and Russia.
“It’s really big all over there,” she says. “It’s kind of been my dream all along to go tour the country and what a great way to do it – playing volleyball.”
Any European club making an investment in Wicinski can be assured they will be getting not only a talented athlete, but a person of good character. Wicinski is one of 10 finalists in her sport for the Senior Class Award, the nation’s premier award for NCAA student-athletes competing in their final season.
“It’s an honor to be recognized at all,” Wicinski said. “It’s a great list to be on. I’m just honored that Michigan State felt I should be on that list. It’s awesome.”
The award recognizes students for their achievements in the community and in the classroom, as well as in competition. Once fall finals are over, Wicinski can focus all her energy on the competition this weekend.
“I know I don’t want my volleyball career to end,” she said. “I can’t let go of volleyball.”
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To send him a column idea on local athletes competing in college, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.