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Prevailing under pressure

The Northeastern volleyball team earned 21 victories last season, the club’s most since joining the Colonial Athletic Association conference. But its aspirations for a conference title were dashed after a crushing loss to Virginia Commonwealth University in the semifinals.

Head coach Ken Nichols described the defeat as a “very sobering” experience for his players, nearly all of whom have returned for the 2012 season. He hopes last year’s season-ending defeat has taught them how to succeed in pressure-filled moments.

“We need to find a way to win the big matches,” Nichols said. “We’ve built something very special here, and our expectations are high.”

The Huskies, he said, should continue building on their strengths: a physical defense and an increasingly complex offense.

Among the returning players are outside hitters Kelly Bacon and Janelle Tucker, who anchored last season’s Northeastern attack. Last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year Jillian Briner and middle hitter Nicole Bishop, who Nichols said has a commanding presence and boasts a tremendous work ethic, will also return.

Bishop, Nichols said, “will be the real driving voice for us.”

Nichols expects the Huskies to remain one of the conference’s best defensive teams, featuring stalwart Natalia Skiba who last year was named the CAA Defensive Specialist of the Year and the American Volleyball Coaches of America East Region Freshman of the Year.

With an eye toward continuing to improve, the Huskies have scheduled a series of tough opponents for the upcoming campaign. Perhaps the greatest example of the schedule’s strength is the team’s Aug. 31 matchup with defending national champion UCLA as part of the UCSB Invitational in California.

“We should be measuring ourselves against teams that consistently make the tournament,” Nichols said.

The Huskies will open the season on Aug. 24 against first-time opponent Alabama. The matchup is part of the Beanpot Classic tournament co-hosted by Northeastern and Holy Cross.