Michigan Massacre lifts Cats to big weekend sweep

Andrea Cohen

The Northwestern volleyball team did damage to the state of Michigan’s morale this weekend, beating both the Wolverines and the Spartans for its first weekend sweep since November 1998.

The home victories improved the Wildcats record to 2-0 in the Big Ten and 5-3 overall. In 2000, the Cats were 5-25.

“Beating (then-defending NCAA champion) Penn State last year was a great, great win,” junior middle blocker Sarah Ballog said. “But this weekend may have been better because we beat both teams.”

It took the Cats five games to defeat Michigan (3-5, 0-2) on Friday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The match was NU’s first after last weekend’s matchups were canceled following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

“After not playing for a while we knew everybody was kind of rusty,” coach Keylor Chan said. “We just wanted to play hard and with intensity.”

In a contest that went neck and neck, NU managed to come out on top, winning the deciding last two games 30-16 and 15-13 after narrowly losing the third 34-32.

“Blocking, serving and passing — those were the big three that we did better,” Chan said. “Not by much, but enough to make the difference.”

Ballog, who had 16 kills in the game, got some serious help from a couple of freshmen: Setter Drew Robertson notched a double-double (52 assists, 10 digs) and outside hitter Jill Buschur had 15 kills.

The always-tough Spartans (7-2, 0-2) came into Evanston on Saturday fresh off a loss to Wisconsin.

Brimming with confidence from their Friday victory, the Cats won the first game handily, 30-24. The second game was much closer, with NU squeaking out a 32-30 victory.

“The night before against Michigan, we had lost a close game like that,” Ballog said. “Knowing that we can come out of a tight situation like that … is a goal of ours in itself.

“After the first two games, we had 10 minutes off and we went back to the locker room, knowing that we could finish them off in three games.”

The final game was indeed under the Cats’ control, and they closed the deal with a 30-20 win.

The Cats were outstanding at the net, with big games from middle blockers Erika Lange, who had seven blocks and 11 kills, and Ballog, who had nine kills.

“Blocking is vital,” Lange said. “If you control the net, you can control a match. It’s demoralizing to a team to some extent.”

NU’s 96 blocks leads the Big Ten, and the Cats stand out individually as well. Lange is second in the conference with 45 blocks and Ballog is third with 43.

The Cats’ strength at the net has been key to their success this season — and there has been considerable success to go along with remarkable improvement.

Robertson, NU’s freshman setter, played a vital role, quarterbacking “a fantastic offensive system,” according to Chan. The California native has moved into the Cats’ lineup with ease, making a big difference in the turnaround from 2000.

Robertson’s high school, Long Beach Poly, is renowned in Southern California for its athletic prowess.

So making the transition to NU wasn’t that much of a stretch.

“I wouldn’t say anything has been completely smooth,” Robertson said. “It’s been a challenge but it could have been a lot tougher.”

The lineup changes and the team’s ongoing maturation have keyed the Cats’ resurgence, as evidenced by their best weekend in recent memory.

“We’re a young team,” Chan said. “It’s my second year here, along with my staff, and we’re trying to build on last year.”