NORMAL -- While the rest of the Millikin student body was concerned with midterms, the Big Blue volleyball team aced its first test at the NCAA Division III tournament Thursday in Bloomington. 

With 17 total aces, the Big Blue (29-7) quickly dispatched Greenville 25-10, 25-15, 25-9 moving on to round two and a meeting with reigning Division III national champions Calvin College on Friday.

Millikin's game plan was to win through the serve and it did just that as Meredith Artime led the team with five aces and Emily Mihalkanin and Erin Syversen each added four aces of their own. 

"The two biggest points were that we wanted to control the serve and pass game because I felt like our offense has been pretty strong all year and we would be able to terminate if we could control the serve and pass game," Millikin coach Debbie Kiick said. "And I think that happened." 

Mihalkanin, the Big Blues' setter, had the offense rolling and racked up 31 assists in the three-set match.

"I wanted to use all our hitters and have a balanced offense," she said. "I think Greenville is a great blocking team and I wanted to keep them on their toes and not really sure where I was going to set the ball. I was going to mix it up and get every hitter going."

And getting every hitter going was exactly what she did. 

Erin Syversen, who was named American Volleyball Coaches Association Midwest Region Player of the Year on Wednesday, led Millikin with 15 kills.

Alora Goodey, the CCIW Player of the Year, notched 11 kills and Emily Seegmiller added another 11. 

Mihalkanin was also named to the AVCA all-region team, a first for her. 

"It’s exciting. That’s never happened to me before. All-regions is definitely an honor," she said. "It’s one of those things, I can only get that if I have passers who get me the ball and I can only get assists if the hitters put the ball away. It’s definitely a team award when you look at it, it’s not just an individual award to me."

Through its strong serve and pass game, Millikin was able to go on several multi-point runs against the Panthers who were over matched by the speed of Millikin's game.

The Big Blue also wanted to take Greenville's (26-8) top players out of their comfort zone. 

"Two of their strongest hitters are their two middles, so we tried to force the setter out of the setter’s box to be able to set the ball, making it hard to use their middles the way they prefer to use them," Kiick said. 

"We knew that Millikin's offense was something we were going to have to pay attention to as the top kills team in the nation and they definitely showed that tonight," Greenville coach Tom Ackerman said. "They were able to get in system and terminate early. In the first set they had 18 kills which is unbelievable stuff.

"All the credit to them, they did what they have been doing all year. It was impressive."

After losing the CCIW tournament championship match to Carthage last week, Millkin was eager to get back on the court.

While taking out some of its anger on another team. 

"I think we were definitely ready to get back on the court and a loss like that to Carthage really really stinks," Mihalkanin said. "Especially when it is a win to get yourself into the NCAA tournament so that kind of stung. But once we got in, it was time to flush it out and realize that a new season starts right now and that loss doesn’t really matter now. The loss lit a fire under us to get us going in this game."

"I think everyone dials it up at NCAA time. It’s an honor to be here and be a part of such a great program," Artime said. "The NCAA definitely means a lot and coming here, you want to play your absolute best because this is a big deal."  

One statistic Kiick is very pleased with is a 42.9 killing percentage. 

A percentage that high means Millikin was playing just the way it wanted to.

"We hit .429 tonight, how can you hit .429? You have to be in the system," Kiick said. "We have player like Meredith (Artime) to get the ball to the setter and a setter like Emily (Mihalkanin) who will do everything they can to put Erin in a position to win. They are the people who really carry the water for this team."

Millikin will face Calvin College next, a team it knows very well. 

Calvin ended Millikin's season last year in the NCAA Sweet 16 and the Knights beat the Big Blue earlier this season in a five-set match. 

But Calvin was pushed to the breaking point in its opening match with Washington University-St. Louis, winning the first two sets before allowing Washington to win the next two and nearly the game. 

Millikin's team watched some of that game from the stands and Kiick hopes her team learned a lesson from it.

"One thing every team in the tournament can learn is that it’s not over until it’s over so you’ve got to push through to the very end because the clock is not going to run out on you," she said. 

mflaten@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6968

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