Volleyball: Northwestern stumbles, loses two on Michigan road trip

Dan Ryan

After defeating then-16th-ranked Minnesota at home on Oct. 10, the Wildcats were riding high and looking to continue their ascent up the conference standings.

Senior middle-blocker Sabel Moffett called the game a “defining step” for the Wildcats, and the win, which moved the team into 20th in the coaches’ poll, was a promising start to a difficult stretch of Northwestern’s schedule.

The state of Michigan, however, would not smile so kindly on the Cats.

NU (15-4, 5-3) dropped back-to-back matches for the first time this season, losing to then-No. 15 Michigan (18-2, 7-1) 3-1 on Friday before being swept by Michigan State (11-8, 3-5) the following day. The losses pushed the Cats down to No. 22 in this week’s coaches’ poll.

The contest against Michigan State also marked the first time the Cats failed to win at least a set in a game all season.

“We didn’t have that extra little bit,” coach Keylor Chan said. “I can’t point to anything in particular.”

With first place in the Big Ten hanging in the balance, the opening set in Ann Arbor promised an exciting match. The Cats edged out the Wolverines 25-23 in a frame in which neither team put more than two points between them and their opponent.

Strong performances from Moffett (12 kills, 4 blocks) and senior middle-blocker Naomi Johnson (12 kills, 6 blocks) led the Cats statistically, and freshman outside-hitter Stephanie Holthus (9 kills, 4 blocks, 7 digs) followed up her Big Ten Freshman of the Week award with another impressive line.

Despite rallying from deficits in each of the next three sets, NU couldn’t stop a Michigan team that fell into a rhythm after the first set. After giving up a lead late in the fourth set, the Cats ultimately dropped the match 25-23, 22-25, 21-25, 24-26.

The woes away from home would continue for the Cats on Saturday against Michigan State. NU had the misfortune of catching a focused Spartan team rebounding from injury.

“They’re very good,” Chan said. “They got their whole team back.”

Although they held a lead in the first two sets, the Cats could not close out either frame. The Spartans would not allow NU a chance to rally in the third, holding the lead throughout en route to a 25-21, 26-24, 25-18 victory.

Despite the loss, Holthus continued her strong play, registering 12 kills. Senior outside-hitter Christina Kaelin also performed well with 11 kills.

After this weekend’s trials, three of the Cats’ four losses on the season have come on the road.

“Playing at home is a big deal in the Big Ten,” Chan said. “We need to learn how to execute.”

With the losses, NU slides into a tie for third in conference with No. 9 Penn State (15-4, 5-3). The Cats will have an opportunity to improve their standing this weekend when they host Ohio State (16-5, 4-4) before taking on the Nittany Lions in a battle of Big Ten contenders.

“I don’t think we need to change anything,” Chan said. “We just need a little rest. We’ll get ready for homecoming weekend.”

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