Volleyball: Cats upset No. 6 Illinois, get upset by Wisconsin

Dan Ryan

After a weekend of jubilation and heartbreak, Northwestern showed just how fickle the sports gods can be in spite of putting together NCAA Tournament-worthy performances.

No. 24 NU (17-8, 7-7 Big Ten) shocked then-No. 6 Illinois (20-4, 12-2) Friday night in Evanston, sweeping the Big Ten leader 3-0 before dropping an epic five-set match against Wisconsin (15-10, 4-10) Saturday night. The win against the Illini marks the first time the Cats have beaten their in-state rivals in three sets since 1984.

“It was a great match,” senior middle blocker Sabel Moffett said. “We just came out on fire, and we knew what we needed to accomplish this weekend. We set our goals high. We were aiming for a sweep, and we got that.”

The match was an opportunity for NU to put itself on the map nationally and silence the doubters after losing five of its previous six contests.

The Cats were on their game from the opening serve, building up a quick 10-5 advantage in the first set. Although the Illini would rally to pull within two, NU never gave up its lead, eventually taking the set 25-22.

From there, the Cats played practically flawless volleyball.

After recording five hitting errors in the opening frame, NU improved upon an already dominant first set by committing none for the rest of the match. Moffett and senior middle blocker Naomi Johnson led the way, combining for 26 kills and no errors throughout the entire contest.

“I don’t want to say I was upset with our performance versus Illinois last time,” Johnson said. “I just felt like I could’ve had a little higher hitting percentage, and I just personally came into this match wanting to play the best that I could play. We really wanted to take it to them as the middles.”

This is exactly what the Cats did for the rest of the match.

Although Illinois seemed to find its stride in the second set, at one time building up a five-point lead, NU simply could not be contained. Behind the performance of their senior middles, the Cats roared back with a 7-1 run and held the Illini off late, taking the set 25-23.

In the final frame, NU trailed for all of one point, building a 10-6 lead and holding Illinois off until the end, taking the set 25-20 and, with it, the match.

Senior setter Elyse Glab recorded her 4,500th career assist in the win, making her only the third player in program history to reach the mark.

“This time of year it’s all about your players,” coach Keylor Chan said. “Our players knew what was on the line, and they played some great volleyball.”

After their dismantling of now-No. 9 Illinois, NU looked to have a sure weekend sweep with unranked Wisconsin in town on Saturday.

The Cats came out of the gate looking exactly like the team that trounced Illinois, posting no attack errors en route to a 25-16 set victory.

It became clear in the second, however, that the Badgers had no intention of going away quietly.

Wisconsin bounced back from their disappointing first frame by edging the Cats out in the second, winning the final three points to take the set 25-22. In the third, the Badgers maintained a large margin throughout, taking the set easily by a score of 25-17.

NU found itself in the fourth set. Coming out fresh off the intermission, the Cats ran up a 14-4 tally early, and though Wisconsin would stage a small rally, NU took the set comfortably 25-21.

The final frame was a sports fan’s dream. After 10 ties, four lead changes and five separate match points, the Badgers eked out the win, taking the deciding set 21-19.

“Wisconsin played really well,” Chan said. “I just think that we weren’t as crisp as we were last night. Wisconsin looked good.”

In the loss, Moffett posted a career-high in kills with 27. Senior outside hitter Christina Kaelin added 12 kills, while Johnson recorded 11 in the losing effort.

The Cats now face four straight away matches, beginning next weekend in the Hoosier State against Purdue and Indiana.

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