A game of Monopoly among members of the Wicinski family once lasted seven hours, because no one wanted to give up.
Northern Illinois University volleyball player Lauren Wicinski credits her genetic competitiveness with leading her to earn the title of Mid-American Conference player of the year twice in a row.
The Geneva native, a sophomore at NIU, was the first in MAC history to do that in her first two seasons, and only the fifth to do so back to back.
In 2010, she also was named MAC freshman of the year, and nobody else has been named player of the year and freshman of the year simultaneously.
“My whole family, we're all very competitive. I don't want to lose, I just want to do the best I can,” said Lauren, 19, a 2010 graduate of Geneva High School. “I think I kind of surprised people. I came out of nowhere. I just played hard every game. I didn't even think of (getting the title).”
Lauren, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter, leads the nation in points (6.22/set) and kills (5.36/set) and ranks third in aces (0.59/set) — all top stats in the MAC. In October, she became the fastest in league history to reach 1,000 career kills and is on pace to finish the season with career highs in points, kills, hitting percentage, aces, digs and blocks.
Her parents played a huge role in her development as an athlete, Lauren said.
Her father, Rob, played football at NIU, where her mother, Gina, was on the volleyball team. Rob Wicinski now coaches football at Geneva High, and Gina Wicinski coaches volleyball for the Kane County Jrs., the club team that Lauren played for starting in the seventh grade.
“Dad being a coach, if I have a problem or a question, he puts it through his perspective as a parent and as a coach, too. Mom having played college volleyball, she knows what I am going through,” Lauren said. “Them letting me experience what they know is awesome. I couldn't ask for better role models.”
Lauren's can-do attitude carries to the classroom.
This year she earned academic all-district honors, along with teammates Kristin Hoffman of Batavia and Allison McGlaughlin of downstate Morton. Lauren maintains a 3.41 GPA and wants to major in elementary education.
“In high school I was in a TA (teaching assistant) program. I would go to the elementary school and work with the kids. It was the highlight of my day, I loved that,” she said.
Her parents never pushed her to go to NIU, said Lauren, who considered attending schools as far away as California. But she clicked with her teammates and looked forward to continuing to work with husband-and-wife duo Dan and Coley Pawlikowski, who coached her with the Kane County Jrs. and later began working for NIU.
Lauren said she especially liked the idea of remaining close to her younger sisters, Jessica, a junior, and Kelsey, a freshman at Geneva High School, who play volleyball for the school team and the Kane County Jrs. “I don't want to miss out on crucial parts of their life,” Lauren said. “If they have a game on Saturday, I can go home and see them play.”
At NIU, Lauren fit right in as a driven competitor and supportive teammate, NIU volleyball coach Ray Gooden said. This year, NIU clinched the MAC regular season title.
Opponents don't let Lauren out of their sights, Gooden said.
“As a freshman, Lauren was highly regarded but not necessarily the target for teams to focus on. As the year progressed, she became the focal point for teams to defend against,” he said. “This year, it was like that from the beginning.”
Gooden, who's coached college volleyball for 17 years, said Lauren has great drive. “Attacking is what she's especially good at. She plays the game quite aggressively; she also tries to learn the game as much possible.”
From an early age, Lauren put in extra hours of hard practice, sometimes all by herself. “I remember being in my basement that has cement walls, and I would hit against the wall for hours,” she said.
Losing is extremely hard for her, Lauren admitted. But she adheres strictly to the “24-hour rule,” something her father taught her a long time ago, she said. “No matter what happens, you have 24 hours to sulk or enjoy it, but once 24 hours are up, you've got to move forward,” she explained.
Her mother said Lauren has always set goals for herself, and then focused on achieving them.
“She's always worked hard, always wanted to do better, to keep improving,” Gina Wicinski said. “Weightlifting, speed training — you never had to push Lauren to do anything.”
Lauren also played basketball in high school, but volleyball was always her first love.
“I really liked basketball, but it was different, and there's physical contact,” Lauren said. “Volleyball is such a team sport. You really need a pass, a set, and a hit, so many people are involved in a play to score. That's kind of unusual. You really all need to be working together.”
Her most difficult time came about a year ago, when she suffered a stress fracture in her foot and was out for most of the spring. “In high school it's not as long of a season. I wasn't used to the pounding,” she said.
This summer, Lauren traveled to Croatia to play against European teams through Bring It Promotions, a California organization that helps develop players who are in the pipeline for the national volleyball team. Gooden recommended Lauren, and she paid her own way for the trip by working extra hours as a coach for the Kane County Jrs.
Lauren is among about 100 female volleyball players her age in the country who have the potential to make the U.S. team, where players are often in their mid- to late- 20s, up to their late 30s, said Bring It Promotions owner Tim Kelly, who played professionally in Europe for five years.
“Lauren is big enough and athletic enough. She's pretty dynamic, she hits a very heavy ball,” he said. “She is very strong at the net, she's got good confidence. She compares very favorably to others in her class.”
Playing for the national team “would be unbelievable,” but not something she's hanging all her hopes on, Lauren said. “If it doesn't happen I'm not going to be devastated,” she said.
But her European experience opened a whole new world of possibilities, she said.
“They have a different style of volleyball. We are big and strong, we just hit the ball, but they are really smart. A lot of those girls are a lot shorter than me, and they just look at the court and place the ball,” she said.
Her short-term goal is improving her strategic game, she said.
And long term? “Playing in Europe would be awesome. I might want to do that, it depends if I have a job or not,” she said. “But I can't imagine being done with volleyball after four years of college.”
Ÿ Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.