Volleyball: Wildcats drop exciting five-setter to Illinois
October 18, 2012
Five days after toppling then-No. 25 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., Northwestern fell in five sets to No. 25 Illinois on the road Wednesday night.
The Cats (13-7, 2-7 Big Ten) lost a tough battle to the Fighting Illini (10-9, 4-5) 3-2 after getting off to a quick start in the match. The loss ends a string of recent successes on the road.
NU started aggressively, quickly fighting its way to an 8-3 lead thanks to strong outside hitting. Junior Stephanie Holthus began with four kills in the first 10 points of the match. The Cats coupled that with being able to shut down the Fighting Illini attack early, allowing no player to get more than three kills in the first set. This enabled NU to ride its comfortable lead late into the set, when a service error tightened the match to 22-19 in favor of the Cats. Sophomore outside hitter Yewande Akanbi contributed a few key attacks to take the team to a 25-20 first set victory.
“We were pretty fired up and we all wanted to win,” sophomore middle blocker Savannah Paffen said. “We felt prepared.”
The Fighting Illini took the first point of set number two to give them their first lead of the match. The home team went on a 5-point run to 6-1 and coach Keylor Chan called a timeout.
“We just got back to basics,” Chan said. “And that really helps.”
These fundamentals helped the Cats come out of the timeout and cut the deficit to 11-9, forcing Illinois to use one of its timeouts. After this, a series of hitting errors from Illinois let the Cats take the lead for the first time in the set at 14-13. With the match tied at 15-15, the teams begin trading points and returned to the kind of late set battle to which the Cats have become so accustomed. A number of NU hitters including Akanbi and Holthus put up several points during this stretch to fight for the lead, but their efforts fell short and Illinois won the second set 25-20.
The Fighting Illini came out strong again at the beginning of the third set, taking an easy 13-4 lead over the Cats. NU could not find an answer for the Illinois outside hitters and dropped the third set 25-14.
However, the Cats were not ready to give up just yet, and started the fourth set on a quick three-point run. Paffen continued her efficient hitting to advance the team’s lead, and the Cats soon found themselves up 16-8.
“Maddie [Shalter] and I were connecting really well,” said Paffen, who earned five kills in the fourth set.
An ace from Holthus at 20-14 gave the Cats the boost they needed to finish the set strong and force a deciding set with a 25-17 win.
Illinois began the final set with a 5-1 run, forcing Chan to call a timeout. Both Paffen and sophomore outside hitter Hannah Crippen came back with a shared block and respective kills, but the team couldn’t convert these points into a run. Illinois came up with key blocks when it mattered most and NU fell 15-9 in the fifth and final set.
Despite Paffen's impressive .565 hitting percentage and the momentum-changing plays from Holthus, NU was not able to overcome Illinois over the long five sets. The Cats suffered a total of 14 service errors and as a team produced inconsistent hitting. The Fighting Illini kept their service errors down in order to control their point runs and ramped up their hitting, averaging a .517 team attack rate in the third set and continuing that success throughout the remainder of the match.
Though it is always tough to come out on the wrong side of a five-set match, Crippen said the team is looking at it in a positive light going into their next match.
“It’s important for us to be able to lose so badly in the third set and come back and beat them pretty heartily,” Crippen said. “I think that’s a really big step for us.”