Volleyball: Young Wildcats team stumbles in first trip around Big Ten country

Steven Montero

Northwestern suffered two hard blows as it fell to Wisconsin and Minnesota during its Big Ten opening weekend.

Despite falling 3-0 to the Badgers and 3-1 to the Golden Gophers, multiple members of the team said this weekend showed hints of their talent and long-term capabilities. Almost all the sets this weekend were skin-close, but NU was unable to take control of the close sets throughout the weekend.

The Wildcats did win an “amazing” first set against Minnesota, according to Yewande Akanbi, one of four starting freshmen. Pounding out raw “energy” against the No. 9 Golden Gophers Sunday, the Cats battered their way to a 25-12 victory to win the first set point.

“Minnesota didn’t even know what hit them,” Akanbi said.

Coach Keylor Chan said it was one of the best matches in Akanbi’s NU career and that he wants more starters to play at that level.

“Every team is trying to shut down Stephanie Holthus and control her,” Chan said. “We need other players to step up and take some of the pressure off of her. This weekend we weren’t able to do that consistently.”

Another freshman who stepped it up was Hannah Crippen. She escalated her game with nine kills, eight assists and one solo block in the Minnesota match alone.

Chan said the Cats’ biggest downfall on Friday against the Badgers was a poor execution of their scout report. NU was unable to exploit Wisconsin’s weaknesses because the Cats were unable to get critical kills and because their serving game lacked precision.

Crippen echoed her coach, stating that NU failed to use its scout report.

“We scout very thoroughly,” Crippen said. “We memorize it. We know the scouts back and forth, but when we’re in the game, I think we tend to forget about it. We need to make a conscious effort to think about our scouts in the game.”

Other “kinks” this weekend included miscommunication, letting opponents go on runs, and mental lapses, Akanbi said. She attributes the shortcomings to the team’s youth, and said the Cats are a new team that needs to get accustomed to Big Ten play.

Chan had mixed opinions on the weekend. Although he said it was a learning experience for the new players because he can’t re-create specific critical moments during practice, he also said the experience gained is no substitute for getting the win.

“There are a lot of things that this group has to learn,” Chan said. “We don’t have a lot of experience on the volleyball court right now. I think that all of these experiences are things that are going to help us later in the season, but you should never take any moral victories. Results matter.”

Ultimately the only winning result the Cats can reflect on is their dominant first set against the Golden Gophers. The competitive strength in that set proved NU has fighting potential within the Big Ten.

It is “small ball” the Cats need to focus on as they return home to take on Purdue this Wednesday, Chan said.

According to the veteran coach, the key is to control points, execute kills and make sure certain players know what to do during unique plays.

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