All season, Northwestern has shown flashes of excellence. This week, in its matchups against conference opponents Maryland and Minnesota, we continued to see those positives. Julia Sangiacomo and Alexa Rousseau continued to shine, and the ‘Cats repeatedly demonstrated how gritty of a team they can be. After dominating the last few sets to take their first game of the weekend against Maryland, Northwestern fell in heartbreaking fashion to Minnesota. With this weekend’s results, they stay at the .500 mark on the season, and move to 3-5 in conference play.
‘Cats storm back against Terps for 3-1 victory
On a dark and stormy Friday the thirteenth, Northwestern took on Maryland in hopes of warding off any ‘bad luck’ and earning their first home conference win of the season. Over 1,300 fans filed into Welsh-Ryan Arena, escaping the rain to cheer on their ‘Cats.
It wasn’t long into the match before the bad luck struck Northwestern. A successful Maryland challenge on the first play of the game gave the Terps an early advantage, and momentum. In the blink of an eye, the Terps were up 5-0. Graduate Student Julia Sangiacomo finally got Northwestern on the board, but the first set struggles would continue. Errors and aces plagued the ‘Cats and they dropped the first set — never bringing the deficit within two points.
Set two was more competitive right off the bat. The ‘Cats and Terps were seemingly trading kills, and at 8-7, Northwestern claimed its first lead of the evening, thanks to a Samantha Schnitta attack error. While nice for a brief moment, the lead didn’t last long. Maryland was quick to retaliate, quickly jumping out to their biggest lead of the set, 13-10. Aiming to disrupt the Terrapin momentum, Northwestern head coach Shane Davis called a timeout.
It was a crucial moment in the game for Northwestern. The second set — and possibly the game — was slipping from their grasp. This season, the Wildcats have only one win in which they were down two sets to none — their shocking upset of No. 17 Purdue on October 1. Coming out of the timeout, Northwestern desperately needed some big plays.
Luckily for the ‘Cats, Sangiacomo loves to make big plays. She provided Northwestern just the spark it needed – a powerful kill and a big block propelled Northwestern to a 5-0 run. After going back and forth for a few more points, the ‘Cats went on another 5-0 run, putting them at 25 points and securing a second set victory.
In sets three and four, Sangiacomo took over. Her powerful attack changed the complexion of the game, as her teammates repeatedly gave her opportunities to shine. By the end of the game, almost 40% of Northwestern’s total attempts were from Sangiacomo. She finished the evening with an astounding 27 kills. Even better was that Sangiacomo’s success opened up the floor for her teammates. Alexa Rousseau, who finished the game with a whopping 42 assists, skillfully deceived Maryland opponents on a number of plays, getting points to fall.
Powered by Sangiacomo and Rousseau, Northwestern dominated the last two sets. Their strong offensive attack paid dividends on defense, as Maryland’s hit percentage dipped below .100 for both the third and fourth sets. After shaking some early misfortunes, Northwestern hoped to ride the momentum of their home win to Minnesota, where they would take on the Golden Gophers.
No. 24 Minnesota outlasts Northwestern in five-set thriller
The Minnesota Golden Gophers have had quite the frustrating season. Opening the 2023 campaign as No. 7 in the AVCA rankings, they have faced one of the most difficult schedules in the country. Over half of the Golden Gophers’ games this season have been against ranked opponents, and each of their first six losses were to top-25 teams. After two consecutive losses on the road to unranked opponents — Maryland and Rutgers — the Gophers slid to No. 24 in the AVCA poll. They finally notched a win over Michigan on Wednesday — a huge relief heading into a three-game homestand in which they would host Northwestern.
Facing another unranked opponent, a loss to Northwestern would put Minnesota at risk of falling outside the top 25 for the first time since 2015. For the ‘Cats, a win against an in-conference power program would certainly help their case for a potential NCAA tournament berth. In last year’s matchup between these squads, Northwestern pulled off the shocking upset — beating Minnesota on the road for the first time since 2005. Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats looked to make it two straight wins in Minneapolis.
The match began as a back-and-forth affair, and in the early stages of the first set, the ‘Cats were locked up with the Gophers at five points apiece. It wasn’t long before Minnesota adjusted its game plan. Minnesota tried to neutralize Northwestern’s leading scorer in Sangiacomo, taking full advantage whenever she rotated to the back line. Unable to rely on their superstar, the ‘Cats were out of sorts, making nine errors in the set. After a pair of Minnesota 5-0 runs, the Gophers had won the first set handedly, 25-14.
After another string of errors, Northwestern found itself down again in the second set, 10-14. It was reminiscent of the first, and there was a sense that Minnesota would soon take control and put the set out of hand. Instead, it was just the opposite — the ‘Cats roared back. As if they had simply flicked a switch, they were suddenly firing on all cylinders. With Sangiacomo serving, Northwestern went on a magnificent 14-point run. Sangiacomo delivered three service aces, Leilani Dodson had a ferocious block, and in an instant, Minnesota was now all out of sorts. Northwestern’s excellent second set was capped off with Rousseau’s signature crafty left-handed swing. It was 1-1, and Northwestern had all of the momentum.
The ‘Cats were rollin’, but Minnesota was serving to start the third set with the chance to disrupt their roll. The Gophers sent Kylie Murr behind the line to serve, and she got the job done, leading Minnesota to a 5-0 run. The Gophers continued to build on their momentum, jumping out to an early 9-1 lead.
As they have all year, the ‘Cats fought. They scrapped their way back within four points, and they quickly found their rhythm from set two. Kathryn Randorf’s kill off the bench got things going, and soon after it was Sangiacomo taking over with four consecutive kills of her own. Northwestern scored eight times consecutively, giving them a three-point lead in the set. The ‘Cats and Gophers battled it out for a few more minutes, and it was eventually another bench player, Lauren Carter, with the service ace to clinch the third set at 27-25. After dropping the first set, the ‘Cats stormed back to take the next two — just as they had against Maryland. In the fourth set, it was time for Northwestern to try and put Minnesota away.
The fourth set began just the way Northwestern wanted. With stellar diving digs from libero Ellee Stinson, NU survived some strong swings from Minnesota, and got out in front 13-10. With momentum on their side, and just 12 points away from securing victory, the Wildcats began to fall apart. Northwestern let the Gophers crawl back into the game, as a few Northwestern errors powered a 5-0 Minnesota run. Minnesota ultimately took the set on a gorgeously placed hit from Lydia Grote, initially called out-of-bounds but overruled upon further review.
In the decisive fifth set, Minnesota would revert to a strategy that was proven successful in the early going — subduing Sangiacomo’s ability to attack. They repeatedly targeted her on the first hit, forcing her to pass. The Gophers’ top players began to shine when it mattered most. Grote accounted for five points in the set, including two service aces, and the defending Big Ten player of the year, Taylor Landfair, had herself two kills and a block. The ‘Cats kept it close, but consecutive errors with the game on the line proved to be the final blow. Minnesota took the fifth set 15-12, and clinched a hard-fought victory against a gritty Northwestern squad.
While there are plenty of positive takeaways from Northwestern’s battle in Minneapolis, the ‘Cats’ loss to Minnesota is certainly a frustrating one. Northwestern had opportunities to put the game away, but instead allowed Minnesota to force a fifth set and ride that momentum to a win. Regardless, the ‘Cats showed that they can compete with a Big Ten powerhouse — something they’ll have to do when No. 2 Nebraska, currently undefeated at 15-0, comes to Welsh-Ryan Arena for their next game on Wednesday.