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Volleyball: ‘Cats on six-game slide as season nears end

Things are not going too well.

Northwestern Athletics Photo by John Konstantaras

In a season that started with so much promise, Northwestern has slowly watched its postseason hopes slip away.

When the Wildcats started their 2022 volleyball season 11-1, there was widespread belief that Shane Davis’ team, in his seventh year at the helm, could finally compete against the grueling Big Ten that saw eight teams reach the Big Dance in 2021. After a 6-6 start in conference play highlighted by 3-2 upset wins over No. 7 Minnesota and No. 12 Purdue, those hopes certainly seemed justified. However, a six-game skid over the past three weeks brought those aspirations to a screeching halt as the season’s final week approaches.

Friday, Nov. 11 at Michigan

Coming off a sweep from No. 6 Ohio State and near victory over No. 4 Nebraska, the ‘Cats headed to Ann Arbor, Mich. to take on the Wolverines, who Northwestern lost to earlier in the season. The Wildcats took the early set lead, thanks to nine errors by the Wolverines in the first set, as Northwestern won, 25-23. After trailing 22-19, the ‘Cats rallied to win six of the next seven points and build momentum toward the rest of the match. However, Michigan shored up its attacking woes and won the final three sets, highlighted by a strong second set in which the Wolverines had a hitting percentage of 0.615%.

Saturday, Nov. 12 at Michigan State

The Wildcats had a chance to rebound from their previous day’s loss against the Wolverines’ cross-state rivals, the Spartans. This was the perfect opportunity to get back on track against a struggling Michigan State team that was just 1-14 in conference play, but the Spartans came to East Lansing ready to play. After a narrow 25-23 win in the first set, Michigan State smoked Northwestern in the final two, winning by a combined score of 50-30.

Friday, Nov. 18 at Indiana

On a four-game losing streak following the sweep from the lowly Spartans, the Wildcats needed help desperately, and they got it with the return of setter Alexa Rousseau, who came back after missing several games due to injury. Rousseau’s return sparked Northwestern, coming in clutch with several key assists late to force a fifth set. However, it wasn’t enough, as the ‘Cats fell 15-13 in the final set. In her first game back, Rousseau tallied 39 assists, while helping Temi Thomas-Ailara lead both squads with 20 kills. Despite the loss, Northwestern outscored Indiana 105-102.

Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Michigan State

In the weekend’s closer, Northwestern had the chance to avenge its prior week loss to Michigan State, this time on its own court. Despite their poor record, the Spartans were not deterred, and put on what may have been their most dominant performance of the season at Welsh-Ryan Arena. With Northwestern leading 18-16 in the opening set, Michigan State rallied off five straight points to pull ahead. After Northwestern earned two back, the Spartans closed shop with four consecutive scores to win the first set, 25-20.

Northwestern trailed 21-17 in the second following seven straight from MSU, with four of the kills coming from Aliyah Moore, but the ‘Cats rallied to get back into it. Pretty soon, they found themselves leading 24-23 with a chance to earn their first set win over the Spartans. Northwestern had two chances to put Michigan State away, but ultimately fell, 28-26 in a set where momentum swung every play.

The Wildcats had one final shot to avoid their second sweep in as many weeks, but couldn’t close it out, losing 29-27 in the third after an incredibly dominant set by Moore and Emma Monks. Monks finished with 13 kills and five blocks, while Moore tallied 12 kills of her own. Thomas-Ailara added 17 kills on the other side.

Moving Forward

Northwestern has two final matches left to turn things around, both at Welsh-Ryan Arena. No. 11 Penn State comes to town on Wednesday, while the ‘Cats will host the Fighting Illini on Friday to try to close the season strong.