Volleyball: Cats hope to make championship for seniors

Sarah Kuta

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Freshman libero Julie Chin thought she’d have a few months after the season to get used to graduating senior libero Kate Nobilio’s absence. But on Saturday night, she got a taste of what next year will be like. Chin’s first collegiate start was against none other than the two-time defending national champs, No. 1 Penn State.

When Nobilio graduates, Chin will step in to fill the vacant libero position. As Northwestern plays its final four matches in the next two weeks, the libero hand-off is becoming a reality for Chin.

“It is a little bit scary, but I have such great upperclassmen and they’ve taught me well,” Chin said. “I feel prepared for it.”

The Wildcats (14-14, 5-11 Big Ten) play host to Wisconsin and Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena this weekend before playing their final two games next week against Illinois and Minnesota. NU’s match against the Hawkeyes will honor seniors Nobilio and outside hitter Ariel Baxterbeck.

NU is currently tied for seventh in the Big Ten with an overall .500 winning percentage. If the Cats can keep that up in the final games of the season, the team’s chances of being invited to the NCAA Championship will increase.

For now, coach Keylor Chan has advised his players to think only about playing good volleyball. The rest will take care of itself.

“We’ll either play our way into the NCAA tournament or play our way out of it,” Chan said.At this point in the season last year, NU was last in the Big Ten with a 2-14conference record, an 8-19overall record and a .296 winning percentage.

This year, the Cats are in a much better position going into the last four games of the season. Chan said he is satisfied with the opportunity to play for an invitation to the championship.

“You have to knock on the door a couple of times,” Chan said. “Sometimes you get to walk right in, but very rarely.”

For seniors Nobilio and Baxterbeck, a trip to the championship would put a nice touch on their final season at NU. Baxterbeck added eight kills and seven digs against Ohio State last weekend and contributed seven kills, two blocks and five digs against Penn State. Baxterbeck’s versatility has made her an integral part of NU’s volleyball program.

Nobilio has a career total of 2,111 digs and is the first player in school history to record more than 400 digs in four straight seasons. Nobilio was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week twice this season. Her defensive efforts have been a solid component of the team since her freshman year.

As Nobilio’s time at NU draws to a close, Chin is getting her first taste of next year. As an unofficial mentor, Nobilio has shown Chin the value of diving for every single dig, however difficult or daunting it may be.

“It can be a little intimidating to dig straight down balls,” Chin said. “But it helps to go in knowing that you can dig it and you can do it. You just need to go after every single ball, no matter what.”

Against the Nittany Lions last weekend, Chin did just that. Sophomore outside hitter Alexandra Ayers remembers Chin digging a ball from Megan Hodge, the defending NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player the last two years.

That kind of commitment against top teams will be necessary for Chin next year. With Nobilio as a model for success, Chin is well on her way to filling a pair of big shoes.

“I know she looks up to Kate,” Ayers said. “Julie is learning from her. She knows that she has a big job ahead of her next year, and I think she’s ready for it.”sarahkuta2012@u.northwestern.edu