Volleyball: Cats get trademark Big Ten win

Jimmy Mitchell

Going into the match against No. 20 Michigan, Northwestern head coach Keylor Chan said he wanted the Wildcats “to just show that they could be competitive” against a premier team.

On Friday, the Cats proved just how competitive they could be.

After trailing 2-1, Northwestern (14-9, 5-7 Big Ten) came back to win the final two games to defeat Michigan (17-6, 5-6 Big Ten) at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The win was NU’s fourth straight and marked its first 4-0 Big Ten homestand since 1984. The Wolverines as a result of the match fell out of the polls altogether.

When the Cats fell to Indiana on Oct. 13, their losing streak dropped to a season-low seven matches. Just two weeks later, the Cats’ fortunes have changed for the better. According to sophomore libero Kate Nobilio, a shift to a team-first mentality has spurred the transformation.

“If we’re not going to play well, we have to play for each other,” Nobilio said. “It all came together for us, as we were able to play well and for each other.”

Senior outside hitter Courtnie Paulus credits the “team cohesiveness” for their recent surge. Chan echoed this reasoning, saying that the team’s roster is much more stable now than it has been in recent weeks.

“Our lineup is becoming re-solidified. Our players have come to every match as a team,” Chan said.

NU received help from up and down their roster against the Wolverines. Paulus, senior outside hitter Lindsay Anderson and freshman setter Elyse Glab all finished with double-doubles. Junior middle blocker Chelsy Hyser also had a match-high nine blocks.

The Cats needed every one of their great performances on Friday. NU stayed close in the first game, but a late surge by Michigan gave them a 30-26 victory. Once in the lead for most of game two, NU then fell behind 21-23. At that juncture, things started to look reminiscient of Michigan’s Oct. 3 sweep of the Cats.

In what would be their first comeback of the night, NU rebounded to tie the match at 26. Three consecutive points on a Glab block, a Paulus kill and an Anderson ace propelled the Cats to a 30-28 victory.

After entering halftime tied at one, the Cats came out and were soundly demolished in game three. Tied at five, the Wolverines went on an 8-2 run and never looked back for a 16-30 victory.

NU, taking a 10-2 lead, set the tone early in the fourth game. The Cats remained dominant and won by five to force a decisive fifth set.

“It really shows our resilience, going to the limit like that after the third game,” Paulus said.

After splitting the first six points of the tiebreaker, the Cats took the next four straight to claim a 7-3 lead and force a Michigan timeout. NU never saw its lead drop to less than three, and a 15-9 victory marked the close of the Wildcats’ comeback.

“This game, and every game that we can win, is so important for us,” Nobilio said. “Every win is one step closer to the (Division I Championship) tournament.”

As libero, Nobilio must dig out the opponent’s powerful spikes. Against a powerful Michigan squad, she was frequently battered to the floor due to the sheer force of the Wolverines’ attack. But her 26 digs helped lead the Cats to a total of 83, the second highest of the season for NU.

Her tenacity can be seen as indicative of the way in which NU has bounced back from its big early-season deficit.

“Right now at the end of the year, every match is so critical,” Chan said. “It seems like we play better with our backs against the wall.”

Reach Jimmy Mitchell at [email protected]