Volleyball: Senior shakes off past surgery

Sarah Kuta

When she’s not working on her kills and digs, or prepping for grad school in the library, you might see senior outside hitter Ariel Baxterbeck making her own peanut butter.

As an environmental science and psychology major, one of the senior’s additional interests outside of volleyball is the environment. Though purple appears to be the frontrunner, green follows in a close second on Baxterbeck’s list of favorite colors.

Even at practice, the outside hitter’s environmental conscience comes through – and that’s a good thing.

“After every practice I have to ice so much – my knees, my shoulder, my ankle sometimes,” Baxterbeck said. “I feel like that’s a huge waste of plastic bags.”Baxterbeck and the Wildcats (13-11, 4-8 Big Ten) take on Big Ten foes Michigan State (16-8, 4-8) and No. 15 Michigan (19-6, 7-5) this Friday and Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern enters the weekend after two heart-stopping, five-set victories over Purdue and Indiana.

Baxterbeck was an integral part of both the Cats’ offense and defense at Purdue, knocking down 13 kills and adding 12 digs. But getting to this level didn’t come easy.

During her senior year of high school, she noticed severe knee pain but toughed it out. She tried taking it easy during her freshman year at NU, but during spring workouts the pain was too much. Baxterbeck underwent tendon debridement in both knees, a surgery that cut out dead portions of her patella tendons and stimulated new tendon growth. The operation was a success, but Baxterbeck didn’t fully recover until the beginning of her junior year.

In coach Keylor Chan’s mind, this year serves as the senior’s “redemption” season – she is finally playing at the potential she brought with her as a freshman.

“Now I finally feel like I’m the player that I hope I could have been,” Baxterbeck said. “It’s obviously been hard. It’s been a long road. I’m just doing the best I can with what I have.”Chan was impressed not only with Baxterbeck’s resiliency, but with her dedication as a student. She joked that her teammates make fun of her because she spends more time in the library than the freshmen, who have mandatory study hours.

“She’s beyond intelligent, she’s so smart,” Chan said.

That intellect translates onto the court. In addition to being a savvy player, Chan said she rarely makes errors. Because of that, the team can always count on her to be a stable force in both the front and back rows.

“She’s a problem solver,” Chan said. “What makes her stand out is that she doesn’t. She does her job and she does it really well.”

The Cats will need that brain power when they face one of the most aggressive setters in the country, Michigan’s Lexi Zimmerman. When the teams met in October in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines had 44 kills – twice as many as the Cats’ 22. Zimmerman knocked down six of those.

“She distributes the ball very well, and she’s very active offensively as a setter,” redshirt freshman middle blocker Kathryn Chrystal said.

The Cats plan to respond by serving aggressively and trying to get the Wolverines out of their system. Chan also said he thinks the outcome against both Michigan State and Michigan will be different this weekend because NU has home court advantage.

As Baxterbeck heads into the final stretch of her career at NU, two wins this weekend would be cause for celebration.

“Just knowing that this is my last season and that I have eight games left makes me work that much harder,” she said. “After all that I’ve been through, knowing that it’s going to come to an end so soon is bittersweet.” [email protected]