Weekend signals huge stretch for NU (Volleyball)

Jimmy Mitchell

Many things have changed since Northwestern last faced off against Penn State and Ohio State, two perennial Big Ten powerhouses, to kick off conference play this season. The Nittany Lions have risen to the top position in the nation, while the Buckeyes have fallen out of the Top 25.

That’s not to mention the Wildcats, who have emerged from a seven-match drought to win five of six and contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

In a reprise of that opening weekend, NU (15-10, 6-8 Big Ten) will host No. 1 Penn State (22-2, 14-0) today and Ohio State (12-11, 6-8) tomorrow at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

With only three weeks of regular season play remaining, this weekend figures to be a crucial one.

The Big Ten has been much more competitive than expected this year, with eight teams separated by only two games in the conference standings. NU is currently tied for sixth in the conference with three other teams.

But all that could change by Monday.

“It is going to be huge for everybody in the Big Ten,” senior outside hitter Lindsay Anderson said. “We’re all tied right now, and we’ll probably see teams start to split up a little bit. We want to be on the top part of that split.”

Looming large for the Cats is Saturday’s match, as the Buckeyes are one of the three teams tied with NU.

“We don’t want a split (with the Buckeyes),” Anderson said. “We want to take them again.”

NU came back from a 1-2 deficit to defeat then-No. 23 Ohio State in five games in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 21. The Cats traveled to Penn State the following day and ultimately fell in a sweep.

But NU showed potential against the then-No. 3 Nittany Lions, as they forced overtime in game one and played a competitive second set.

“We have nothing to lose,” senior outside hitter Courtnie Paulus said. “We’re just going to be aggressive and remember what if felt like to take them 31-29 and have that confidence that we can compete with them.”

The loss to Penn State provided an ill omen for the Cats, as NU did not win another match until nearly one month later against Minnesota. That victory over the then-No. 13 Golden Gophers has propelled the Cats to a successful second half of Big Ten play.

The Cats, however, do not seem content with merely finishing their season on a positive note.

“It’s so competitive this year, which makes it fun, but it’s so frustrating too,” Paulus said. “We’re trying to get into the NCAA tournament. We have a lot on the line here.”

Reach Jmmy Mitchell at [email protected]