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VOLLEYBALL PLAYER OF YEAR: The one in the back row

When asked how she would like to be remembered as a volleyball player, Northwestern High School senior Nikki Hughes doesn't exactly have lofty aspirations. She simply hopes to be recalled as "the one in the back row."...

When asked how she would like to be remembered as a volleyball player, Northwestern High School senior Nikki Hughes doesn't exactly have lofty aspirations. She simply hopes to be recalled as "the one in the back row."

"As long as we win that's fine with me," Hughes said. "If someone gets a kill it's nice to know that if I passed it, even though they might not recognize it, I know I helped."

Since starting for the Tigers as a back row defensive specialist in her sophomore year, Hughes has gotten used to working in the background while the team's powerful hitters draw most of the attention. Still, it's very unlikely she will be remembered as just another player in the back row.

"Nikki is hands down the best defensive player I have ever seen," said Charlie Hessel, Northwestern volleyball head coach. "She literally covers all 900 square feet of the court and beyond. Teams tried to keep the ball away from her and she still received 48 percent of the serves and set the school record for digs in a season."

Hughes finished the season with 645 digs and ended her high school career with 1,392 digs. Both marks are school records, and for points of comparison, the next closest single season dig mark is 381 and the next closest career mark is 569. Hughes also had 41 ace serves and a 95 percent serving percentage and holds the school record in games played, with 290.

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"She is nothing short of phenomenal," Hessel said. "She's like the hitter that puts the ball inside the 10-foot line on every hit. She really made it tough for opposing teams to get into a rhythm. It will be strange not seeing her on the court for us next year."

This season, Hughes piled up accolades. She was a team captain, was named to the Heart O' North All-Conference first team and was chosen as both the Tigers' Most Valuable Defensive player and Most Valuable Player.

But despite her many awards and records, Hughes maintains a humble attitude about how she go to this point.

"(Coach) Hessel just told me I should," Hughes said of filling the role of libero. "I'm good at it I guess. I didn't really have a choice."

When Hughes began playing volleyball at Maple in seventh grade, she said she and the rest of the players did just about everything, switching from one position to another. She did not begin playing as a defensive specialist until she moved up to the varsity team as a sophomore.

"It wasn't until high school that we started passing more and developed in that area," Hughes said. "My freshman year we started with a new (passing) technique, and I just picked that up right away. I guess I was good at it ever since."

Hughes may remain modest about her skills, Hessel put a finer point on why Hughes has been able to excel with the Tigers.

"Nikki really fit into the role of the libero for many reasons," Hessel said. "Obviously she is a great passer, is very athletic, has a lot of endurance and does not get intimidated. (But) the biggest reason she plays the position so well is her sixth sense in knowing where the ball is going to go."

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Hessel said Hughes' ability to predict where ball will go is so uncanny the team sometimes calls it her "sick" sense "because it's almost sick how she can get to every ball." Opponents who have gone up against Hughes would probably find the phrase a fitting way to describe Hughes' talents.

"She reads opposing players very well and quickly picks up on their tendencies. A lot of times when other people are making a play on the ball, Nikki is right behind them just in case," Hessel said. "The offensive digs are the ones that amaze me the most. She can pick up a ball that we hit into a block when it gets blocked straight down. She always knows where the ball is going to go."

Over the years, Hughes has come to really like her position as a libero. She knows both her teammates and coaches appreciate what she does, and for her, that's good enough.

"We (liberos) are in the back row and we don't hit. Everyone likes big hitters," Hughes said. "It's okay though. I like when a good pass gets up and then we can hit it. I know my role and I accept it. And it's kind of fun being in a different (color) uniform than everyone else."

The Tigers' season came to an end in the WIAA Division 2 regional finals in a match against Hayward this season, but Hughes still had a lot to be happy about.

"Winning conference this year was my most exciting (moment), and last year was exciting too when we won regionals," Hughes said. "It didn't matter to me that we lost (to Hayward this year); I was just sad that it was over for me, as a senior."

Hughes also plays basketball and is a member of the track team at NHS, but she said volleyball is her favorite sport.

"It's just different than any other sports," Hughes said. "There's no contact with the other team; it's just your side. And it's a real mental game. It's a different sport and I like it."

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After high school, Hughes said she would like to continue playing volleyball, but she will have to wait to see what happens. She has applied to both Winona State University and the College of St. Scholastica and plans to major in nursing.

As for NHS, Hughes said her senior year was very exciting. She wanted to thank Coach Hessel and all of the other coaches who helped her, as well as her teammates, for the successful year.

"It's not just me out there, it's the whole team," Hughes said.

Whether she will admit it or not, however, Hughes was a very important part of that team.

"Nikki was a huge part of our success this season," Hessel said. "Her game always spoke for itself. She never was arrogant or demeaning toward her teammates or anyone else and always encouraged people. She knew what to say to her teammates and they all have such a tremendous amount of respect for her that they took everything to heart. She is just a great all-around person."

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