NU is latest victim of Penn State buzz saw

James Carlton

Northwestern got a taste of how the other side of college volleyball lives Friday at Penn State, playing the undefeated Nittany Lions in front of almost 6,000 fans at Rec Hall.

The Wildcats (8-21, 2-16 Big Ten) won the game’s first point and led 3-2 early in the first set, but that was the last time they would hold a lead of any kind against the Nittany Lions (30-0, 18-0). Penn State, which has not lost a set all season, clinched its sixth straight Big Ten Conference title with the 3-0 victory.

NU’s loss was just the start of a tough weekend that also saw the team fall to Indiana.

The Nittany Lions pulverized the Cats in every way imaginable, just as they have done to opponents all season. Their 44 kills on 41 assists were more than double NU’s team totals, and they attacked at a .443 percentage as compared to NU’s .038 clip.

Junior libero Kate Nobilio said playing Penn State is always a memorable experience and that it was an opportunity for NU to see how it compares with the nation’s best.

“Playing against Penn State is always an amazing challenge,” she said. “They had a huge crowd, which made the competition even more challenging.”

The defending national champions were demonstrably better in the third set, flexing their muscles as the team bolted out to an 8-0 lead early. Penn State extended that lead to 15-2 and never led by less than 13 en route to a sweep.

Not even defensive stalwart Nobilio could stem the bleeding, matching her season low with just six digs.

Junior outside hitter Ariel Baxterbeck said it was hard to be on the losing side of a match with such an exciting atmosphere.

“It was awesome playing in front of that huge crowd,” she said. “But it’s a pretty bad feeling to have the crowd yelling and jumping around after winning the conference title against you.”

After that experience, NU looked to come out strong early against Indiana, winning the opening set 25-20. However the Hoosiers refused to surrender another set, capturing the next three for a 3-1 victory and a sweep of the season series.

The Cats kept the sets close, trading punches with the Hoosiers (16-14, 8-10) throughout the match, but ultimately were unable to force a decisive fifth set.

Nobilio said the team was optimistic early but lost concentration as the match progressed, a problem that has plagued the Cats throughout the year.

“After that first set, I really thought we had pulled together all the little pieces we had been missing all year,” she said. “But then I think we just lost focus. That has seemed to be a theme all year for us.”

Baxterbeck said an inability to make changes against the Hoosiers was an issue.

“We came out pretty strong against Indiana,” she said. “But they made some key adjustments against us and we didn’t.”

Players were frustrated after the match because they said there was not one, obvious problem that held them back. But Baxterbeck said little mistakes and minor details have hurt the team throughout the season.

“I don’t know if it was one thing that’s been bothering us,” she said. “It’s just a bunch of little stuff adding up, a missed block here, a bad serve.”

Sophomore outside hitter Brittani Gray led the Cats with 15 kills and Baxterbeck chipped in 11 against the Hoosiers. Nobilio had 21 digs and is now just 34 shy of the all-time NU record of 1,658 with two matches still to play.

Baxterbeck said this week the team is preparing for its final weekend with the goal of beating Purdue and Illinois at home and finishing the year on a high note.

“We want to get through the season and head into winter workouts with some momentum,” she said. “We’re obviously discouraged with how the season has gone, but we know we have yet to play our best volleyball.”

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