Volleyball: NU dominates Wildcat Classic

Steven Montero

Northwestern managed to clear the courts of all three opponents last weekend in the 30th annual Wildcat Classic.

The young team took a while to hit its stride Friday when facing Duquesne, which was the only team this weekend to win a set against the Wildcats. NU (9-2) rallied back from its one bad set to finish the match by taking the last two sets.

Freshman Yewande Akanbi ended the Duquesne (10-4) match with two consecutive kills. As one of six true freshmen on the team, she said it was simple for her to be “integrated into the program and become more comfortable on the court.”

Akanbi said she has grown throughout her first couple of months with the Cats and attributed a lot of that growth to her teammates, especially in this tournament.

“It was one of the times where we really come together as a team,” she said. “We played our best volleyball that we have all season and I can’t wait for it to get better and better.”

The weekend brought further challenges on Saturday as NU played a doubleheader against Colgate (3-9) and New Mexico State (10-4), which was the hardest competitor the Cats had to face. Nevertheless NU swept all three sets against both teams to come out with what junior Madalyn Shalter called its best tournament of the season.

The team focused on controlling its opponent’s tough hitters, according to Shalter. In addition, the team’s constant practice of its serve and pass game showed throughout the match.

Shalter is a rare veteran on a very young NU roster. Head coach Keylor Chan said the starters usually include three true freshman and one red-shirt freshman.

“I like this group,” Chan said. “We’re young and we knew we needed to improve from day one and kind of reinvent ourselves, retool our team from last year, which graduated so many seniors. They’ve been able to do that so far. It’s been an enjoyable ride and that’s usually never said in coaching.”

One vital player who Chan pointed out is sophomore Stephanie Holthus. Her 35 combined kills on Saturday was a good example of the strong offensive dynamic NU is focusing on.

Holthus was awarded the All-Tournament team MVP honor for her efforts, but she passed the credit on to her team for “speeding up the offense” and its impressive serve-receive game. She said the team is improving every week and continues to grow.

“Every weekend you learn things in the Big Ten,” she said. “Every time you step out on the court, it’s something new and you learn something. We’re trying to help the younger girls as much as we can just talking from experience, what scores and what doesn’t. To a certain point, some of it can be taught and others you just learn from going through it.”

The actual conference play is just around the corner, however, as NU gears up for its matches against Minnesota (7-2) and Wisconsin (8-4) this weekend.

Chan said this tournament allowed the team to execute “at a very high level on the volleyball court.”

Playing good volleyball is what it’s all about but they must continue to grow, he said. That’s certainly true as the Cats prepare to play two red-hot teams.

“We’re expecting to move the bar higher,” Chan said. “The Big Ten was the best conference last year and it will be right at the very top again. We’re going to have to keep focus on improvement in our gym every day and continue to create our culture of success.”

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