Aiken advantage of opportunities

GVL Archive
Freshman Abby Aiken goes up for a spike during a past match.

GVL Archive Freshman Abby Aiken goes up for a spike during a past match.

Jay Bushen

The emergence of a go-to player has sparked quite a run for the surging Grand Valley State University women’s volleyball team.

Junior captain Abby Aiken has taken her game to the next level this season by learning to flourish in a leadership role that has helped guide GVSU to its best start since 2008.

“All of the great teams here have had somebody who is a go-to player, a person who steps up in the big moment,” head coach Deanne Scanlon said. “Every great team needs that person. They want to make a play when the game is on the line and they make the play. That’s what Abby has done for us.”

GVSU (19-3, 10-1 GLIAC) has played its way into in a three-way tie atop the conference after winning nine straight and 17 of its last 18 matches. The multidimensional offense has been a key aspect of the team’s success this season, but Aiken has been the one taking the big swing in big situations.

Her consistent offensive contributions have especially powered the Laker attack over the course of the past five matches. The outside hitter quickly jumped from the seventh-highest kills-per-set mark in the GLIAC to the third highest.

“She’s setting an example for those freshmen of what the expectations are to be successful in our program,” Scanlon said. “When you have somebody like that on your team, it allows other people to flourish because it takes the pressure off of them. I can go after her, I can challenge her and in some situations her teammates may rally around her and support her.”

The turning point for Aiken came during a pivotal match at Ashland University on Oct. 12 when GVSU came out flat and trailed 1-0 after the initial set. Scanlon used a timeout, looked at Aiken and told her to carry the team.

The Onsted, Mich. native found a way to make it happen.

She finished with a match-best 21 kills while leading the Lakers to victories in three straight sets to jostle the team back into first place in the GLIAC.

Scanlon said she used to demand the same thing from AVCA All-American Rebeccah Rapin.

Aiken and First-Team All-GLIAC outside hitter Betsy Ronda have been the offensive focal points of a team that seems to have a legitimate shot at winning its first conference title since 2008.

“Ever since the Ashland match she has really taken that role and embraced it,” Ronda said. “She has an ‘I can do this’ mentality and can lead us when we’re down.”

Aiken’s defense has been solid, but her offensive stats show a significant jump (4.59 kills per set) since the game against Ashland.

The most impressive performance came during the GLIAC/GLVC Crossover Tournament against the University of Missouri-St. Louis when she tallied a career-high 27 kills in a four-set victory.

She said she attributes the improved play to her ability to control her emotions on the court.

“I realize my emotions affect my teammates” Aiken said. “If I’m reckless, then my teammates might be reckless. I’ve put the team first and have been maturing more in that aspect.”

Her performance in the GLIAC/GLVC Crossover earned her a place on the GLIAC All-Tournament Team along with junior setter Kaitlyn Wolters.

GVSU has been on a roll since falling to Ferris State University on Oct. 1 and has won every match since in less than five matches. Eight of those victories came in the form of a sweep.

A number of other players on the team have also stepped their game up during the run, but Aiken has been leading the charge and will be called upon more often down the stretch when the team needs a clutch play.

The team will return to action in the Upper Peninsula this weekend in a pair of GLIAC matches against Northern Michigan University on Friday night at 7 p.m. and Michigan Technological University on Saturday at 4 p.m.