Volleyball: Mix of young and old can’t start cold

Steven Montero

If home is where the heart is, then away is where the hard is.

Northwestern will face plenty of it this weekend as it hits the road to take on Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Big Ten is an ultra-competitive hub for volleyball, and if it lives up to its top-notch play from last year, it will pose a threat to NU’s current record, which stands at 9-2 after the nonconference season.

“This year the Big Ten is jacked with opponents,” junior Julie Chin said. “Probably more than half of our conference is going to be in the top 20 or so.”

Chin also said that NU has been trying to eradicate its weaknesses by practicing serves and passes every day and improving its tempo in order to avoid opponents pinpointing its faults.

“We need to step up to that challenge and make sure we’re ready for it,” Chin said. “So we’ve been scouting our opponents really hard. We’ve been preparing hard in practice. We just need to make sure we stay focused and know that we’re competitive. We can’t overlook anybody in the Big Ten.”

Wisconsin (8-4), who the Cats meet first on Friday evening, is no exception. Senior Alex Ayers said the Badgers have “great attackers and really solid ball handlers.”

However, coach Keylor Chan said the two teams are too similar for anyone to predict the final outcome.

“Wisconsin’s young,” Chan said. “They’re a very similar complexion of age ranges as we are. The team that maintains its composure the best Friday night against each other – Wisconsin and Northwestern – will have an edge.”

Ayers is feeling confident in her team as it approaches this first obstacle in conference play. The senior said she wants to leave her mark on a youthful team that has grown closer together despite the disparity in experience. She said hours of practice and matches have already allowed the players to get comfortable with each other. When every player knows how to take care of her own business, the team performs at a better level, which is exactly what NU needs when it faces Minnesota (7-2) on Sunday.

With five returning Gophers filling in most of the starter positions, the Cats will have to claw their way to a win against these “exceptional” opponents, according to Chan.

Ayers said Minnesota is always one of the top four teams in the Big Ten, commonly bringing tall players onto the court, but this year will be a different experience, with so many seniors graduating from both teams last season.

Meanwhile, Chan said he’s noticing a “good vibe” from his young team this year.

“We’re not so focused on the outcome,” he said. “That will come if we take care of the process. That’s what’s really good about this team. They’ve learned to live in the moment, and in a sport that’s a critical thing. I like where we’re at. Does it guarantee winning? No. Or losing? No. But I think we’re really focused on honing in on living in the moment. If we can do that consistently, I think this team has a shot this weekend.”

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