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Volleyball: Another up-and-down stretch for the Wildcats

The ‘Cats are now 7-11 in conference play.

November 8, 2023, Lincoln, NE: A game between Northwestern Volleyball and Nebraska at Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, NE on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. (Photo by Katy Cowell)
Leilani Dodson taps the ball over the net against Nebraska.
Photo by Katy Cowell

Another week, another split from the Wildcats.

On Northwestern volleyball’s 4-game road trip, the team went 2-2. NU lost to No. 1 Nebraska and No. 14 Penn State, winning one set against Nebraska and none against Penn State; however, the ‘Cats dominated Iowa and Rutgers. These past two weeks were a microcosm of the season: virtually non-competitive games against the cream of the crop in the country and usually beating the teams the ‘Cats should. Let’s examine the details of a couple of these games.

Northwestern at. No. 1 Nebraska (Nov. 8)

Northwestern played with heart against undefeated Nebraska, and one may even consider this game a moral victory. The ‘Cats were on the road in a packed gym, as fans decked in red and white were in almost every set. In set one, Northwestern almost stole the match opener, leading 22-19, but a series of blocks by the Cornhuskers forced the set into extra points. The ‘Huskers flexed their muscle to close the set out 28-26.

In set two, NU played what could be considered its best set of the year. Despite trailing 10-4 to begin the set, the ‘Cats battled all the way back, going on a 15-6 run to take the lead 17-15. However, the Cornhuskers looked destined to take the set, leading 23-20; yet, the Wildcats rattled off four straight points to regain a 24-23 advantage, and a Maddy Chinn block handed Northwestern a 26-24 set victory, stunning the ‘Husker faithful.

After dropping a rare set at home, Nebraska displayed why it is the No. 1 team in the country. The ‘Cats were killed in all facets of the game, especially at the net, as multiple kills were rejected by UNL. It was never close, with the Cornhuskers cruising to a 25-11 set victory.

However, in set four, again the heart of Northwestern was evident again. The teams continued to trade runs throughout the set, with NU trailing by as little as 17-15 late in the set; however, a 4-0 run put this set out of reach. While the Wildcats tried to mount one last comeback, Nebraska closed out the set, and the match, with a 25-20 victory.

Julia Sangiacomo finished with 16 kills, which led both teams. Moreover, Averie Hernandez had 13 kills, which matched Nebraska’s kill leader. Ellee Stinson also showed out, recording 15 digs to lead both teams. Nebraska only beat NU down in one aspect of the game: blocks. The Huskers’ size and athleticism earned them 28 total blocks, whereas the ‘Cats only secured 19.

Northwestern at Iowa (Nov. 12)

Fresh off the Nebraska loss, Northwestern headed on the road to take on Iowa. It got the job done against a hapless Hawkeyes team, securing a 3-0 win to snap the three-match losing streak.

The first set was extremely tight. NU appeared to have it in hand after going up 22-18, but a couple of errors put Iowa right back in the game. It evened it up, and when Northwestern had a 24-23 set point, Bailey Ortega evened it back up. From there, though, back-to-back kills from Hernandez and Rousseau gave the Wildcats a 26-24 win.

It was relatively smooth sailing from there, with Northwestern earning two 25-21 set wins to clinch the match. Four-point and five-point midgame runs put the ‘Cats in the driver’s seat, and they capitalized. Northwestern didn’t statistically dominate, but it did outplay Iowa in every facet. Sangiacomo led everyone with 15 kills, while Hernandez was the only other player in double digits with 11. Chinn recorded six blocks, Rousseau racked up 35 of Northwestern’s 41 assists and Stinson had 14 digs.

Northwestern at Rutgers (Nov. 17)

Northwestern headed back out east a few days later, and again took care of business as the favorites with a 3-1 win. Rutgers entered this match 2-14 in Big Ten play, but it drew first blood with a 25-23 first set victory. Taylor Humphrey secured the win with five kills in the set, and she two of those five earned the Scarlet Knights their final two points.

That lit a fire under the ‘Cats, who ripped off three consecutive set wins. They became increasingly dominant as the game drew on, winning those sets 25-19, 25-17 and 25-16, respectively. After Rutgers recorded a 36.8% hitting percentage in the first set, its marks in the final three were 10%, 21.1% and 0%. On the other hand, NU hovered around 35% throughout.

Additionally, Northwestern’s kill percentage improved as the game drew on, peaking at over 55%. That was largely due to another terrific game from Sangiacomo, who led everyone with 24 kills for her sixth 20-kill match of the season. Hernandez added 12, and Stinson recorded 21 digs.

Northwestern at No. 14 Penn State (Nov. 18)

The ‘Cats went on the road against one of the best teams in the country in No. 14 Penn State, who earned Big Ten Team of the Week. NU fared overall pretty badly in comparison to its game against Nebraska. Earlier in September, the Wildcats played the Nittany Lions and got swept at home. The first set was all Penn State. PSU came out with conviction and got ahead of the ‘Cats very quickly. The Nittany Lions ended up winning the first set 25-15. However, in the second and third sets NU put up a good fight against Penn State. The ‘Cats lost the second set 25-23 and were up for most of the third set before PSU made a run in the final few points to win the set 25-22.

Similar to the Nebraska game, Northwestern had trouble at the net. Penn State outdid the Wildcats in blocks. Furthermore, Penn State’s attack percentage surpassed Northwestern’s by more than a tenth of a percent; the Nittany Lions had a .293 attack pct while NU had .175. This effect was evident in the statline, as NU had no game leaders in aces, kills, blocks, or assists. Sangiacomo led the team with 10 kills, yet it was clearly not enough to boost the ‘Cats to victory. Stinson was a bright spot on the stat sheet. She had 12 digs to lead the game.

What’s Upcoming

The Wildcats finish their season with two games at Welsh-Ryan Arena. They play Iowa Friday night, and Illinois Saturday night. Iowa should be rather a non-contest. Iowa is winless (0-18) in Big Ten play, and NU swept the Hawkeyes, as aforementioned, 3-0 on Nov. 12 in Iowa. The Illinois game is the perfect opportunity for the Wildcats to finish the season on a high note and avenge a 3-0 loss on Nov. 1 in Champaign. The Wildcats are very unlikely to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but the Fighting Illini are fighting for their playoff hopes. They are 11-7 in the Big Ten, often regarded as the best conference in volleyball, and rank sixth. The Wildcats likely have a great chance to play spoilers for their in-state rivals, which would be a great ending to the season and the careers of the seniors on Senior Day.