You know how in movies that involve some sort of high-speed pursuit (whether in a race or in a police chase of some sort), the villain will always look back and be shocked to see the protagonist still in their rearview mirror? Then they’ll make a face and slam the steering wheel or something and hit the gas even harder?
This Wildcats team is that movie protagonist. The ‘Cats may not win every single chase, but they will be in it until the very end. Since September began, if you ignore the sweeps at the hands of top-15 teams, Northwestern volleyball is 7-4 (meaning that even including the sweeps, the Wildcats have a winning record since September). Of those four losses, two have come in the fifth set, and in the other two, Northwestern’s opponents won a total of one set by more than three points. The schedule ahead isn’t easy, with ranked opponents like Minnesota and Nebraska looming, but these Wildcats have proven that they can make any match a battle.
Wildcats wobble late in multiple sets against Michigan
Coming off of an upset win over then-No. 17 Purdue, the Wildcats were flying high as they arrived in Ann Arbor. The energy level was right where it needed to be, and after absorbing a few runs from the Wolverines, Northwestern knotted the first set at 10 apiece. The ‘Cats then slowly began to pull away thanks to Averie Hernandez and Ellee Stinson, stretching the lead to 20-15. Unfortunately, it was at that precise moment when the gas tank hit empty. Michigan closed the set on a 10-3 run to take the opening frame, 25-23.
The refueling process took a good chunk of the second set. The Wildcats went down 6-2 early before quickly working their way back into the game and earning a 10-9 lead. Northwestern would once again slowly but surely push its way into a semi-comfortable lead, going up 22-19 thanks in part to some Leilani Dodson defensive action. Michigan went on a late run to make things tricky, but the ‘Cats stood their ground, and Alexa Rousseau closed out the second set with an ace. Northwestern tied the match at one set apiece, and looked to continue building on the momentum in set three.
That trend, though, was short-lived. Maddy Chinn helped build an early 7-5 lead, but the Wolverines forced a timeout after going on a 7-2 run. Gigi Navarette and Julia Sangiacomo assisted Northwestern’s push back in front at 18-17, but the Wolverines had another late run in them. A 4-0 Michigan spurt opened the lead to 22-19, and while Northwestern was able to threaten, it failed to tie the set up again. Michigan took set three, 25-23.
The Wolverines then went for the jugular to open the fourth set. A 6-0 run to start backed the ‘Cats into a corner, but they fought out of it quickly. A 5-0 Northwestern stretch followed by some strong defense from Kennedy Hill led to an 11-10 lead for the Wildcats. However, the Wolverines found another gear. An 8-2 run closed the book on any hopes of a Northwestern win, and while NU was able to reduce the gap to 20-17, it was too little, too late. Michigan took the fourth set 25-20, and the match, 3-1.
There were still some bright spots for the Wildcats. Three players (Stinson, Rousseau and Navarette) had double-digit digs, and Sangiacomo led the match with 16 kills. However, a team hitting percentage of just .117 and a paltry 42 kills meant that Northwestern couldn’t topple the Wolverines. The team would have another chance to beat a Michigan squad, however, and it was the same team that had stunned the purple and white at home the week prior.
Road revenge in East Lansing
After the tough five-set loss at home on Sept. 29, Northwestern was out to right wrongs when the team showed up to face off against Michigan State. Much like in the first matchup between these two teams, it was competitive and emotional throughout.
The first set alone saw a pair of lead changes and 11 ties. In the end, it was the Spartans who came out on top despite Hernandez once again getting off to a hot start against them. Thanks to a late 3-0 run, Michigan State took the opening set, 25-22.
The Wildcats wouldn’t let that stand, partially thanks to Stinson. A pair of aces by Stinson (spectacular poker hand, by the way), sparked a ‘Cat run that put Northwestern up 10-7 early. Thanks to a great frontline attack led by Hernandez and Rousseau, the lead continued to grow, all the way up to 19-13. Northwestern once again showed its ability to close better than Evanston restaurants once the clock strikes 10, winning the set 25-16. There were seven ties in the frame, but they all came very early; the set wound up being a tale of domination from the ‘Cats.
The third set was more of the same, but Michigan State refused to go away. Sangiacomo reached her 15th kill before either team hit five points in the third set, and her offensive prowess resulted in a 9-6 lead for Northwestern early. The back-and-forth action continued from there, with Sangiacomo once again delivering powerful kills to give the ‘Cats a 17-13 lead and forcing a Spartan timeout. MSU would cut the deficit to two, but Northwestern once again slammed the door behind Hernandez and Hill.
With its back against the wall, the host team came out on fire in the fourth set. Michigan State generated an 8-3 lead before Northwestern clawed back to tie things up. Sangiacomo got yet another kill to give Northwestern an 11-10 lead, and Rousseau flashed her skills as well as the Wildcats built a 16-12 advantage. Yet, NU was unable to close the deal in the fourth set, and Michigan State tied the set at 23-23. The Spartans then took the final three points of the set to win 26-24, and force a winner-take-all fifth set.
For the second time in just over a week, Michigan State and Northwestern went to a decisive fifth set. And for the second time in just over a week, the road team was able to pull it off. Northwestern established several narrow leads early in the set, and Hernandez sparked a 3-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 9-6 advantage. Michigan State was able to claw back to 12-10, but Sangiacomo notched a kill on two of the final three points of the set (and the match). Northwestern won 15-10, and avenged its home loss by dealing one to the Spartans.
Sangiacomo and Hernandez completely dominated the match. The graduate transfer put up 32 kills and 11 digs (her second double-double of the year), and Hernandez garnered more kills in this single match (17) then she did in the entirety of her freshman season (15). Rousseau also had the offense running cleaner than a bottle of Windex, totaling three aces and 50 assists.
The road trip to the Great Lakes State was a major success. The Wildcats once again proved their clutch mettle and offensive firepower, and it’s clear that the team is gelling rapidly. The momentum from early September has carried into early October, but with a 2-4 record in conference play, there’s still a lot of ground to make up. The games this coming week — a home affair with Maryland and a road contest with No. 24 Minnesota — will say a lot about how competitive this team can be in the race for the Big Ten. But, one thing’s for sure: the Wildcats always going to be right there in the rearview mirror.