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Volleyball: Wildcats split final two matches before Big Ten play

There’s still a lot of questions to be answered.

After a great showing in the Northeast Invitational that helped push the ‘Cats above .500 and a road win at Fairfield, it seemed highly likely the team would hit a wall after garnering their longest winning streak since last October. While that wall was hit, Northwestern was still able to split their matches with UIC and Yale back at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The 1-1 week provides a lot to celebrate as the Wildcats head into conference play, but also showed some cracks the team can’t afford to leave exposed for teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Game One: UIC, September 13

In the Wildcats’ first home game in 12 days, the team came out firing. Ellee Stinson tallied a pair of aces as Northwestern jumped out to an 8-0 lead over UIC. The Flames quickly caught fire, though, and rallied to take an 11-10 edge. After some back and forth action, Northwestern built a comfortable cushion to pull away and take the first set, 25-20.

The second set looked a lot like the first. Once again, Northwestern took an early lead, but a UIC run enabled them to take an 11-10 advantage. With the score tied at 13, Julia Sangiacomo began taking over the set. She was responsible for one kill in a 3-0 run that stretched the lead to 16-13, and a powerful spike set the tone for a 5-1 run to close the door on the Flames. Northwestern took the second set 25-18, putting themselves one set away from victory.

At first, it seemed like the third set would get the ‘Cats that victory. Northwestern built leads of 5-0 and 11-5 early, but UIC responded quickly to make it 11-10. After another Wildcat run to push the lead to 19-15 behind more Sangiacomo spikes, it seemed as though the game would end quickly. Someone forgot to tell UIC that, though, as the Flames managed to take a slim 22-21 lead. In a set full of comebacks, Northwestern was unable to mount one of its own and fell, 23-25.

The comeback by the visitors took a lot of air out of Welsh-Ryan Arena, as evidenced by the fourth set. UIC jumped all over the Wildcats to take leads of 4-0 and 8-5, after which Northwestern would never get closer than two points. The Flames were on fire throughout the set, tying the match at two sets apiece thanks to a 25-10 dismantling of Northwestern.

In the fifth set, the couple of Chicago-based combatants traded blows in a winner-take-all set. Graduate transfer Maddy Chinn earned her 18th kill of the night (a career best) to help the ‘Cats take a 7-6 lead. However, UIC would once again showcase their resilience in building an 11-8 lead. One last slam from Sangiacomo cut the deficit to a pair, but once again, Northwestern was unable to mount a comeback. UIC took the set, 15-11, and earned a stunning comeback victory to move to 8-3.

The Wildcats fell to 5-4, but it was no fault of Chinn’s, whose 18 kills led the team. Alexa Rousseau put up a season-high 50 assists to move into seventh on the all-time Northwestern board, and Stinson added a career-high four aces. The main issue for the Wildcats was service returns, as they allowed UIC to total 10 aces.

Game Two: Yale, September 15

In a battle of academic powerhouses, Northwestern was the powerhouse on the volleyball court. The Wildcats wasted no time jumping all over the Bulldogs, building a 9-4 lead in the first set. Yale fought back, but unlike two days previously, Northwestern weathered the storm. Thanks to Rousseau, the ‘Cats escaped a 13-13 tie to go up 17-13. Once again, Yale knotted things up, and once again, Northwestern was forced to respond. This time, it was Leilani Dodson who stepped up, garnering a kill and a block in the final three points of the set to push Northwestern to a 25-22 first set victory.

In the second set, it was Yale who went out ahead early, but Northwestern quickly made up the game. After tying the game at 6-6, the Wildcats went on a 4-0 run sparked by powerful spikes from Kathryn Randorf. The run only got better from there, with the lead reaching 16-9, then 22-15. Sangiacomo earned her third kill of the set to close out a 25-19 Wildcat victory.

Much like two days prior, Northwestern had a 2-0 lead heading into the third set. This time, though, the ‘Cats finished the job. The third set was tight at first, with the teams deadlocked at 10 when first year Gigi Navarette stepped to the service line. Behind some spectacular offense, including Dodson once again stepping up with a clutch kill, the Wildcats built a 16-10 lead. That 6-0 run eventually turned into a 15-3 run, as Northwestern pulled away to win the clinching set by a wide margin of 25-13.

Both Sangiacomo and Dodson reached double-digit kills in the match, and Dodson also added a pair of blocks. Ellee Stinson was hugely active on the defensive side, garnering 16 digs, and Rousseau marked her eighth game of 30 or more assists. Northwestern totaled an attacking percentage of .345 in the match, and tallied 41 digs in the contest as well.

The Wildcats’ next challenge is Big Ten play, which will be unlike anything the team has dealt with so far this year. After going 1-1 in their non-conference ranked matchups, the ‘Cats will be thrown into the fire immediately as conference play begins. Northwestern welcomes top-ranked Wisconsin to Evanston this Friday at 7 p.m., then faces No. 13 Penn State in a home affair on Sunday afternoon.