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Volleyball: Wildcats start 1-3 in conference play but upset No. 7 Minnesota in the process

Even with a tough first week in the Big Ten, Northwestern is on its way to a successful season.

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For any Northwestern fans struggling to find something to cheer for this fall, may I remind you that Field Hockey and Women’s Soccer are both ranked in the top ten nationally, and the Northwestern Volleyball team is pretty darn good. With a mix of both steady play by veterans and an injection of energy from new faces, the Wildcats steamrolled their way through the beginning of the season. However, they struggled in their first week of Big Ten play. The Wildcats finished the week 1-3, although their lone victory was a massive upset against No. 7 Minnesota. Let’s take a look back at what went right and what went wrong this past week.

The Wildcats started Big Ten play last week in Madison, Wi. to take on the No. 6 ranked Badgers. The Badgers controlled the game from the first set, keeping Northwestern from taking over. The Cats looked to have a little momentum in the second set, getting out to a 15-12 lead. The Badgers did not flinch though, coming all the way back before going on an 8-1 run to take the second set. While the third set was a little more back and forth, the Badgers went on a late run to take the set and sweep Northwestern out of Madison. Senior outside hitter Temi Thomas Ailara led the team with 11 kills and Junior Alexa Rousseau had 30 assists.

The Cats looked to get back to their winning ways when they traveled to Champaign, Ill. to take on the Fighting Illini. The Cats, as is a common theme, struggled out of the gate. They fell behind 16-7 and Illinois looked poised to cruise to an easy first-set victory as they were up 21-15. The Cats did not relinquish the set easy, going on a 9-3 run to even the score at 24 all. The Illini were able to hold off the Cats’ comeback and take the first set. The second set started off competitive, but the Cats once again let up a big run, allowing the fighting Illini to win 10 out of the final 13 points, including six in a row, to take the second set. Another Illini run in the third set squandered any chances the Cats had of salvaging a set and keeping the game alive. The Illini swept the Cats 3-0, sending the Cats into Minnesota 0-2 and without a single set won in Big Ten play. Thomas Ailara once again led the team with 16 kills, and freshman Kathryn Randorf also had 11 kills of her own. Rousseau had another 28 assists in the match.

The Cats were bruised and battered going into No. 7 Minnesota. The Cats had not beaten the Golden Gophers in their last 13 matchups. As what has become customary, Northwestern struggled out of the gates, falling behind 4-0 in the first. They battled back to tie the set before being able to get on a run of their own, scoring seven out of nine points to put them within striking distance of winning the opening set. A late surge by the Golden Gophers fell short as the Cats won the opening set and their first Big Ten set of the season.

The momentum for the Cats was short-lived, as the Golden Gophers cruised to take the next two sets, pushing the Cats' backs up against the wall. NU found a way to punch back, getting an early run and staving off a few Golden Gopher runs to take the fourth set and even the match at 2-2, forcing a winner-take-all fifth set. In a battle that saw both teams clawing for each point, the two teams were all squared up at 13, only two points away from victory. An error from the Golden Gophers followed by a massive kill from fifth-year Hanna Lesiak gave the Wildcats the set and their first top-ten road win in program history. Thomas Ailara once again led the team with 17 kills and Rousseau had a whopping 52 assists for the Cats before heading back to Evanston for their home opener.

The Wildcats returned home on Saturday night to take on the Michigan Wolverines. With a packed student section inside Welsh Ryan, Coach Davis’ squad showed symptoms of a post big win hangover, looking sluggish out of the gate. The Cats fell behind early, forcing Coach Davis to burn his timeouts. However, Thomas Ailara and co. refused to let up, as the Wildcats roared back to push the set to 24-23 Wolverines and brought the Wildside to their feet. That Cats were unable to capitalize as Megan Miller’s served slapped the net to give Michigan their 25th point and the first set.

Much like another Northwestern team on Saturday, the Cats committed costly self-errors. Numerous bad passes, coupled with service errors and miscommunications put the Cats down early in the second. The Cats were able to find a way to tie at 14, but the Wolverines took full control and cruised to an easy second-set victory and put Northwestern’s backs against the wall.

If the Wolverines were going to put this game away, they were going to have to go through a superhuman named Thomas Ailara. The Senior had seven kills in the third set alone and helped the Cats find a way to take the third set and stay alive.

All the momentum seemed to be on the Wildcat’s side in the fourth set. As the cats jumped out to a quick and sizable lead, the Wildcat bench had some fun making a jump rope out of towels and showing off their skills. The Wolverines are apparently not big fans of fun, as they cut the lead to only two midway through the set. The Wolverines were able to get all the way to match point, and the Cats were able to stave them off but couldn’t capitalize on their own set point. Michigan was finally able to put Northwestern away and win the match 3-1, dropping the Cats' conference record to 1-3.

Although its conference record is not pretty, Northwestern has already matched its win total from the 2021 season. The ‘Cats have been competitive in each game, but self-inflicted errors and the inability to stop runs have been the weakness of Davis’ squad. In a stacked Big Ten, those few points are the difference between wins and losses, and the Cats need to clean them up before they take on Rutgers Friday night at Welsh Ryan Arena (7 P.M. CST).