Volleyball: Cats become eligible for NCAA Tournament

Jimmy Mitchell

One year after failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern became eligible for a postseason berth with a decisive win this weekend.

The Wildcats (16-11, 7-9 Big Ten) defeated Ohio State (12-13, 6-10) 3-1. Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. A day earlier, the Cats fell to No. 1 Penn State (24-2, 16-0) in straight sets.

The weekend began on the wrong foot for the Cats when sophomore libero Kate Nobilio injured herself in practice Friday, indefinitely relegating her to the sidelines. The top-ranked Nittany Lions, undefeated in Big Ten play this year, were quick to use Nobilio’s absence to their advantage.

“(Penn State) exploited some weaknesses, and we had a player hurt, and they really exploited that on our team,” NU head coach Keylor Chan said.

But Chan also emphasized that Penn State outplayed the Cats in all three games.

“They’re a team that doesn’t make a lot of errors, and they have some really physical players. If you make a couple errors, then they’ll take advantage of that,” Chan said. “That’s why they won. They took advantage of our early misses in those three games, and they kind of ran away with it.”

PSU was commanding early, and the Cats never were able to recover from such dominance. The Nittany Lions led off the match with six consecutive points and proceeded to take the first game by six points. NU floundered in game two and dropped the set, 30-20.

After falling behind 5-0 in the third game, the Cats rebounded and eventually closed the lead to 18-17, prompting Penn State to call a time out.

The Nittany Lions ultimately took the set, 30-27, but only after being pushed by the tenacious Wildcats.

“We’re not going to give up,” senior outside hitter Courtnie Paulus said. “We are a resilient team, and we’re going to play to the last point.”

NU showed that same resiliency against the Buckeyes on Saturday, as it took the first set, 30-27, and almost came back from a 25-29 deficit in game two. Instead, the Cats fell 28-30 and went into halftime tied 1-1.

The third and fourth games played out in a much more one-sided fashion. Thanks to a 10-4 surge, the Cats won the third set by ten points and then – powered by a 7-2 run midway through the fourth game – took the final set by five.

Unlike the Sept. 21 match in which NU came back from a 1-2 hole for a comeback victory against the Buckeyes, the Cats dominated the whole match Saturday.

Chan credited his whole roster for the victory and the positive play of the last few weeks.

“Our younger players are really starting to play well, and our seniors (are playing) like seniors,” he said. “We’ve matured and grown and gotten better.”

Chan specifically cited the performance of sophomore defensive specialist Emma Pollert, who stepped in to fill the libero position Saturday. In place of Nobilio, Pollert played all four games and finished the match with a match-high and career-best 27 kills.

Junior middle blocker Chelsy Hyser credited Pollert’s performance along with NU’s deep bench.

“What’s great about our team is the depth that we have and the ability of people just to step in,” Hyser said. “It’s just great to know that we have each other’s backs, which is, I think, what brings a team to a higher level.”

Reach Jimmy Mitchell at [email protected]