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Volleyball: ‘Cats begin Big Ten play with two losses

Northwestern is back down to .500.

Ryan Kuttler / Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern volleyball lost its first two Big Ten matches of the 2023 season, failing to win a set against both Wisconsin and Penn State over the weekend. Here’s a rundown of how both games played out.

Wildcats get outmatched by No. 1 Wisconsin

Northwestern, like the rest of the country at this point in the season, faced off against the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers and had no answers for their relentless attack on Friday night.

Although Northwestern packed Welsh-Ryan Arena with a single-match program-record 4,889 fans for the game, Wisconsin was able to temper the crowd by the middle of the first set.

The Wildcats hung in early against the Badgers thanks to solid defense and early kills from graduate student Julia Sangiacomo and senior Leilani Dodson. But, with the score still close at 11-10, Wisconsin was able to step on the gas, going on a 7-0 run, and eventually winning the set 25-18.

The next two sets didn’t fare any better for Northwestern. Although the Wildcats took an early 3-1 lead in the second frame, the Badgers rattled off nine straight points. The deficit in that set for the ‘Cats reached 16 points before they were able to chip away slightly at the massive lead, but still dropped that set 25-12.

In the third set, Wisconsin was done playing with its opponent. The Badgers led the set the entire way, en route to finishing the match with a 25-13 set win. The Wildcats were simply outclassed by the top team in the country on Friday.

Northwestern had its least effective night at the net so far this season, recording only 23 kills and posting a .079 hitting percentage on the match, both season lows.

No. 15 Penn State dominates Northwestern

In a repeat of Friday’s loss to Wisconsin, Penn State came to Welsh-Ryan Arena and beat up Northwestern in straight sets on Sunday afternoon.

In the battle of Big Ten felines, the Nittany Lions were slow to get going early in the first set. They found themselves facing a 8-5 deficit after back-to-back kills from sophomore Kathryn Randorf. Later in the set, Penn State only had a lead of one at 16-15, but it was able to control the set moving forward, going on a 7-0 run to take it to 23-15 before eventually winning 25-18.

The second set proved more of the same for the Wildcats, taking an early 3-0 lead, then giving up seven straight points. The ‘Cats were able to close the gap to 11-10, but then the Nittany Lions pounced, charging out to a 25-15 victory.

Just like Wisconsin in the third set of Friday’s match, Penn State established an early lead, jumping out 7-2. Unlike that third set on Friday, Northwestern didn’t lay down and accept its fate. The ‘Cats showed some resilience, tying up the match at 14-14. Northwestern hung with Penn State for the remainder of the set, but the Nittany Lions went on a few runs, eventually winning the third set 25-21 and leaving Evanston with a win.

Similar to their match against Wisconsin, the Wildcats recorded a below-season-average hitting percentage for the match, at .185 on the night. One bright spot this match was that the ‘Cats tallied 31 kills, eight more than they hit against Wisconsin.

There are no moral victories in the win-loss column, but at least Northwestern rebounded in the third set. The team had a solid .313 hitting percentage, which allowed it to stay close to the Nittany Lions throughout the set.

Unfortunately, Northwestern’s defense was the main issue in this one. The team allowed Penn State to pick it apart at the net, with the Nittany Lions recording 52 kills in three sets and allowing a season-high .453 hitting percentage.

Up next for the Wildcats

Look for Northwestern’s defensive and offensive stats to progress back to its season averages against Michigan State (9-4, 1-1 B1G). The Wildcats take on the Spartans at home on Friday night. Opponents are hitting only .168 against Michigan State this season, so it will be key to establish an offensive presence early on for Northwestern.

Then, the Wildcats head east to West Lafayette, Indiana, to take on the No. 17 Purdue Boilermakers (8-3, 2-0 B1G) Sunday afternoon. Opponents are hitting better against Purdue this season than Michigan State at a .233 hitting percentage, but it has a more potent offense, boasting a .246 hitting percentage.

One factor that may help Northwestern in this matchup is the fact that Purdue will be coming off a match against No. 2 Nebraska on Friday night. So, Purdue may be either exhausted — which could work in Northwestern’s favor — or the Boilermakers may be steaming mad and looking to exact their frustration against the Wildcats.

Either way, Northwestern will need its defense to be in top form to get out of Indiana with a win.