Wildcats face off against Penn St. (Volleyball)

Ariel Alexovich

When five wide-eyed freshmen made their debuts as Northwestern volleyball players four years ago, they were part of a very different team.

While that 1999 Wildcats squad lost the majority of its matches, this 2002 team is collecting wins.

After leading their team to its current position, those five players, now seniors, will play in their final home game Saturday as NU (16-13, 9-8 Big Ten) hosts No. 17 Penn State (21-6, 11-5).

And if the quintet — middle blocker Sarah Ballog, libero specialist Jill Fantozzi, right-side hitters Kelli Meyer and Brandy Stohl and outside hitter Cassie McKnight — wants to exit on a positive note, it’ll have to figure out a way to overcome another ranked team.

“Penn State is one of the best teams in the Big Ten,” sophomore setter Drew Robertson said. “But we need to show them that we can win.”

Holding down third place in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions are a big threat to the Cats’ chances of making the NCAA tournament. Typically, a team that finishes .500 or better in conference play is invited to the competition. And with three matches left for NU this season, every point counts.

The points matter even more to the seniors, who would love to end their careers with an NCAA tournament appearance to their credit.

“Now with making the tournament a definite possibility, that’s the way we want to leave,” Meyer said.

In the NU-Penn State face-off on Oct. 25, the then-No. 9 Nittany Lions swept NU 3-0.

But now they have dropped to No. 17, going 4-5 after a strong 17-1 start.

Penn State leads the Big Ten in hitting percentage, connecting on .297 percent of their attack attempts.

Blocking also is one of the Nittany Lions’ areas of expertise, with Penn State leading the conference in team blocks-per-game.

Making NU’s job tougher are Penn State senior Mishka Levy and junior Robin Guokas, who are third and fourth in individual blocks behind NU’s first-ranked Erika Lange.

Coming off a 3-2 loss to No. 14 Wisconsin on Wednesday, the Cats plan on converting their frustration into a win.

“Now we have more motivation to come out and kill Penn State and shut them down,” Robertson said.

After the loss, NU head coach Keylor Chan said his team is preparing for Penn State by working on the basics in practice this week.

“We have to get back on the court with our training,” he said. “We need to correct the things that are wrong in our game and get back on track.”

NU’s five seniors are proud to have brought this NU team up from the depths of the conference rankings to become a legitimate threat, Meyer said. The Cats’ 1999 record of 4-26 and 2-18 in the Big Ten — a last-place conference finish — is a far cry from NU’s current season.

Although these players have been essential in leading the Cats from their 11th-place finish in 1999 to their current sixth-place standing, Chan said there’s always room for improvement.

“The team’s been playing well lately,” Chan said. “But we can still step it up.”