Volleyball: Badgers keep Cats at bay

James Carlton

After a fourth straight loss to open the Big Ten season last weekend, Northwestern needed a rally to claim victory over No. 21 Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday.

But like in previous games, the Wildcats fell behind early and could not make their way back.

NU (6-10, 0-5 Big Ten) trailed early once again, dropping the first two sets to Wisconsin. The Cats simply could not break through against the Badgers, who never allowed the Cats to get within striking range at the end of games. Wisconsin (13-4, 3-2) ran away with a 3-1 win.

“Our skills are there,” sophomore middle blocker Naomi Johnson said. “But in the clutch, we need to pull through during long rallies. We have to get those clutch points and swing the momentum our way.”

The Cats have shown flashes of being able to finish off teams.

NU came back to win a dramatic third set, getting four kills each from Johnson and freshman outside hitter Alexandra Ayers.

Leading 23-19, sophomore middle blocker Sabel Moffett registered a booming unassisted kill, reacting calmly as the ball smashed into the court on the Wisconsin side. Sophomore outside hitter Brittani Gray’s serve for set point was returned and junior libero Kate Nobilio made an athletic, diving dig to keep the crucial play alive. Ayers got the kill to win the set and cut Wisconsin’s lead to 2-1.

That was as close as the Cats would get, though, as the Badgers won the fourth set 25-19.

Coach Keylor Chan said Wisconsin simply outperformed the Cats in fundamental areas.

“I think Wisconsin was the better team to some degree,” he said, “But it really came down to who served and passed the best. We knew that was going to be important coming in, and in games one and two they won the serve-pass war.”

Johnson said lack of preparation was not an issue coming into the match, and a few important plays could have swung the result in the NU’s favor.

“They’re a very good team, but they’re definitely beatable,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working really hard in practice, but things just didn’t go our way tonight. A few points here and there and we take that match.”

After the first game, Chan inserted senior Kelly Keporos at setter to replace sophomore Elyse Glab. The move was intended to offer Glab a break, he said, and to give the Cats “a different look.”

Chan was pleased with Johnson’s play, and said she has been particularly valuable the past couple of matches. Johnson finished with 11 kills, tied for the team lead with Gray. Her performance helped offset the lack of production from senior middle blocker Chelsy Hyser, who Chan said was victimized by the Badgers’ focused defense.

“Because (Hyser) has been very productive, teams will do things tactically to take her away,” Chan said. “In this league, teams can commit to a player and when that happens everyone else needs to step up.”

Wednesday’s loss was a setback for the team. Chan warned that time is running out for the Cats to learn how to dispose of teams in tight contests.

“At 0-5 we need to start figuring out how to win close games,” he said. “We get right there but can’t quite close the deal.”

The Cats recognize the importance of every conference match, and will have another chance to collect their first win on Friday at Michigan State.

“Every night in the Big Ten is a must-win,” Johnson said. “We’ve had some bad luck so far, but I feel we can definitely beat Michigan State. We have to come out in practice tomorrow and be ready to get a win.”

[email protected]