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Volleyball: ‘Cats upset No. 17 Purdue, fall to Michigan State over weekend

The cardiac ‘Cats strike again.

Mary Grace Grabill/Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern volleyball notched its first conference win of the season on Sunday, coming back from down two sets to stun No. 17 Purdue on the road. Yet, while the victory may have seemed shocking on paper, it was the culmination of a weekend which saw signs of the ‘Cats growing in confidence and grit. Two days prior, Welsh-Ryan Arena witnessed Shane Davis’ side lose in heartbreaking fashion to Michigan State after battling back from the brink in both the fourth and fifth sets. With Northwestern now 7-7 on the season and 1-3 in Big Ten play, the team has plenty of time to turn its season around. If it does, these past two games may well prove to be a major turning point.

Michigan State squeezes by Northwestern in thriller

In front of a crowd of 1,378 supporters that included an initially packed student section, the Wildcats fell to unranked Michigan State in five sets. The biggest story of the volleyball season thus far has been the setting of all-time program attendance records on two separate occasions. Although Friday night saw attendance reach only just over a quarter of that history-making mark, the fans present at Welsh-Ryan were able to create a boisterous atmosphere, even as the match stretched late into the evening.

The contest was nail-bitingly competitive throughout, with neither team claiming a set by more than five points. It was NU who got off to a fast start, never looking back after Michigan State’s last lead at 2-1 and eventually taking the first set, 25-21. In the second set, the two sides were deadlocked at 16-16 before MSU junior Julia Bishop went on an ultimately decisive six-point serving run. Bishop, who utilizes an unorthodox serving technique which involves standing several feet behind the baseline and keeping her feet planted on the ground, caused problems for Northwestern’s returners all night.

The third set was even closer than the previous two, with Northwestern earning itself a set point at 24-23. With their backs against the wall, however, the Spartans stayed aggressive. Junior Grace Kelly delivered a vicious cross-court kill down set point, and then closed out the set with an ace. In the fourth set, it was Michigan State who found themselves in an advantageous position late on, seeking to close out the match, as the score sat at 23-21. This time, it was the ‘Cats who thrived under pressure, first turning a return into an immediate kill by sophomore Averie Hernandez to earn a side out.

The Spartans appeared to set up double match point when Aliyah Moore blocked Julia Sangiacomo’s kill attempt, but a video review initiated by ‘Cats coach Shane Davis revealed that the MSU sophomore transfer had touched the net, thus tying the set at 23-23. Two points later, Sangiacomo was not to be denied, as her kill sealed the set and extended the match.

Michigan State came flying out of the blocks in the first-to-15 final set, and it looked as though it had built up an unassailable 13-7 lead before the home side even had time to regroup from its fourth set heroics. In fact, the ‘Cats had one more fight in them, as they pulled off a remarkable string of six points, many of which were long rallies. Having tied the game, maintaining their run proved a task too steep — Ellee Stinson’s set sailed over the net and wide on match point, and Northwestern sunk to 0-3 in conference play. Hernandez led the way with 15 kills for the ‘Cats, who left Welsh-Ryan Arena empty-handed despite a performance full of heart.

Sangiacomo shines as Northwestern stuns No. 17 Purdue

Two days after the MSU contest, graduate transfer Julia Sangiacomo posted a career-best performance as the unranked Wildcats came back from the jaws of defeat to upset No. 17 Purdue. Sangiacomo, a California native who spent the first four years of her college volleyball career at Santa Clara University, finished with 33 kills. That mark not only surpassed her previous career-high of 27, but was also the most kills by a Big Ten player in any conference or non-conference game since Paige Jones recorded 37 for Michigan against Indiana in March 2021. It was also the second-highest single-match kill total in program history.

While Sangiacomo’s dominance was the game’s defining feature, it was another team effort from Northwestern that allowed it to methodically plug away at Purdue’s two-set lead and ultimately triumph. Unlike in the Michigan State game, neither of the first two sets were particularly competitive — the Boilermakers took both, 25-17 and 25-15. The ‘Cats started the third strong, leading the way for the vast majority of the set until Purdue leveled the score at 22-22. Though the hosts never held a match point, they were two points away on three separate occasions late in the third set and failed to convert. With the game on the line, Hernandez came up clutch with back-to-back kills to clinch a 27-25 victory.

With the momentum on its side, Northwestern kicked on in the fourth set while their opponents folded altogether. A five-point streak to start the set was a sign of things to come, and the ‘Cats prevailed, 25-11. In the early stages of the fifth, it looked as though the Boilermakers had regained their footing. After finding itself facing an 11-8 deficit, Northwestern called a timeout, turning the set and match on its head. Sangiacomo took over from that point on, recording four kills in the final eight points to complete the Cats’ improbable comeback.

The final point of the match was initially awarded to Purdue after Hernandez’ spike sailed long, but upon further review, the ball was adjudicated to have grazed the fingers of junior Lourdés Myers as she attempted a block. When the final decision was announced, Northwestern’s entire team mobbed the court in celebration. It was a momentous victory, both in the context of the match and the season as a whole, and one that should give the ‘Cats enormous confidence as they move forward. Big Ten play continues for them this Friday in Ann Arbor as they take on Michigan, before a Saturday rematch with Michigan State will test the extent of the team’s newfound belief. With 16 conference games remaining, anything is still on the table for Northwestern volleyball.