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Volleyball: Northwestern earns key win, battles Michigan

Big Ten play has been a slog for the Wildcats and head coach Shane Davis, but they may be turning things around.

Desiree Becker leaps for a block at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Northwestern Volleyball

After dropping each of their first ten games during conference play, and despite arguably their best player being sidelined due to injury, Northwestern volleyball (10-14, 1-11 B1G) managed to find a way to sweep Michigan State (13-9, 4-8) on Friday for their first Big Ten win of the year, before falling in a valiant five-set battle to Michigan (15-7, 8-4) the next day.

The impressive, much-needed weekend came on the heels of a low point for the Wildcats, who fell in a tough five-setter to Maryland the previous week before handing Rutgers only their second-ever Big Ten win. But even with star first year Temi Thomas-Ailara, who is currently leading the conference in kills per set with 4.26, sidelined, Northwestern bounced back.

Against the Spartans, the Wildcats got off to a hot start and never looked back, getting up early in the first set and weathering a comeback from MSU to take it 25-20 before controlling the next two sets, earning scores of 25-16 and 25-17. Sophomore hitter Ella Grbac and senior hitter Nia Robinson led the way offensively, with 12 and 13 kills respectively. The former’s performance was all the more impressive given that she has been in and out of the lineup recently.

Grad transfer Payton Chang, just re-entering the starting lineup on a full-time basis herself, added two aces, eight digs, and 31 assists as Northwestern’s setter. The Wildcats earned the win by flipping the script on two categories they had struggled with throughout conference play until last weekend: the serve/serve-receive game and blocking. On Friday, NU ended up out-blocking MSU 9 to 4, while dishing out five aces to just three service errors and zero receiving errors.

Those trends continued against a much tougher opponent in the Wolverines on Saturday. Michigan, who looks like a surefire NCAA Tournament team, was also out-blocked by the Wildcats (14-10), and though Northwestern didn’t have their best day at the service line or in serve-receive, they largely avoided shooting themselves in the foot.

True first year middle blocker Desiree Becker stepped up with by far her best performance of the season, leading the way for NU with a whopping 15 kills on 28 attempts despite not committing a single attack error, while also adding a tremendous nine total blocks. It was a near-perfect game for Becker, filling the offensive void created by Thomas-Ailara,even if it wasn’t quite enough in the end.

In her seeming return to full-time action, senior defensive specialist Sarah Johnson, who had been out all season due to injury, came up with 11 digs, with libero Lexi Pitsas adding 17. Chang had 47 assists.

Though they took the second and fourth sets, the Wildcats just ran out of gas down the stretch, falling 15-8 in the decisive fifth. Still, it was one of if not the best performance the team has showed all year, giving some hope that Shane Davis’ bunch still has plenty of fight left in them.

On Wednesday, the Wildcats travel to Lincoln to take on the fifth-ranked Cornhuskers, who swept them earlier in the year. Then, on Saturday, they’ll get a rematch with the Spartans in East Lansing.