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Volleyball: Strong play continues against ranked opponents

The ‘Cats picked up Big Ten honors as they muscled through the toughest stretch of the schedule.

The Wildcats played four matches since we last brought you a volleyball update. Three of those were against top-12 teams. And although the ‘Cats split the matches 2-2, this is some of the best volleyball we’ve ever seen from Shane Davis’ squad.

Friday, Oct. 28 vs. No. 12 Purdue

First up, No. 12 Purdue. First-year Sienna Noordermeer still set for Northwestern while Alexa Rousseau was sidelined with a leg injury. After a five-point ‘Cats lead and a four-point Boilermaker run in the middle of the first, Northwestern broke through a tie at 23 to take the first set. Purdue roared back in the second, leading by as much as six points, to beat the Wildcats by two. The third set was all purple, and the ‘Cats took the frame 25-18. Purdue started off hot in the fourth with an 11-1 lead and kept control to push a fifth set. Northwestern fell down by three, but went on a dramatic 12-5 run to close out the match, claiming it 15-11.

The ‘Cats took their third ranked win of the year behind a season-high 25 kills and 10 digs from Temi Thomas-Ailara, her third double-double this fall. Megan Miller tied her career-best with 30 digs, while Noordermeer recorded a career-high 57 assists. The team snagged its first win over Purdue since 2016.

Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Iowa

Two days later, the ‘Cats hosted Iowa at home. The Hawkeyes kept it close in the first and pushed the final score to 26-24 in favor of the ‘Cats. The second set was tight — neither team took a lead larger than three. With the score tied at 23, Hanna Lesiak delivered two kills to take set two. In the third, Iowa chopped a late six-point lead by Northwestern in half, but the home side maintained control to take the match in straight sets.

The victory over Iowa was Northwestern’s fourth straight Big Ten win, the first time accomplishing the feat since 2011. Thomas-Ailara received Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the second week in a row and the third time this season. Miller was honored as Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this year, and Noordermeer was the conference’s Freshman of the Week for the first time.

Friday, Nov. 4 vs. No. 6 Ohio State/Sunday, Nov. 6 vs. No. 4 Nebraska

The ‘Cats then hosted two of their toughest opponents of the season: No. 6 Ohio State and No. 4 Nebraska. The first set against the Buckeyes was the closest of the night, with no more than a three-point lead for either team. Ohio State took the first by three, then dominated in the second to take the set by 13 points. The third set went quickly as well, with a seven-point win by Ohio State to decide the sweep. The ‘Cats recorded 24 attack errors in the match to the Buckeyes’ eight, with a dismal hitting percentage of .077.

The Wildcats broke the volleyball attendance record in their Sunday afternoon matchup against the Cornhuskers with 4,019 fans packed into Welsh-Ryan Area. The first set was a thriller: the ‘Cats had a six-point run and the Huskers later posted a five-point run, but Northwestern pulled out the 29-27 win behind three consecutive kills from Thomas-Ailara. Nebraska grabbed an early lead in the second that it kept until the end, winning the set by five. The third and fourth sets were close, with each team grabbing a two-point victory and the Cornhuskers sending it to five.

The fifth set was marked by a serious injury to Noordermeer. The team tweeted out an update the next day that she had been released from the hospital and is in stable condition. The Huskers dominated the set and took the match with a nine-point advantage. The ‘Cats lost in the fifth set for the first time this season. Thomas-Ailara delivered a new season-high of 26 kills, while Desiree Becker got five blocks. Hanna Lesiak recorded a double-double with 15 kills and 11 digs.

Overall, Northwestern is currently ranked higher in the Big Ten standings than the rest of the teams it will play during the regular season, minus Penn State, who sits one above the Wildcats. With six matches left on the schedule, NU has a chance to go above .500 in conference play. The last time the ‘Cats broke even in the Big Ten was in 2005 when they boasted a 10-10 record in conference matches.

NU goes on the road this weekend for matches against Michigan and Michigan State, then plays at Indiana before returning to Evanston on Nov. 20 to host the Spartans.