Volleyball: NU falls points short in historic upset bid against Penn State

Steven Montero and Steven Montero

Northwestern stepped on the heels of a giant and made its mark.

Seeking a historic win over No. 8 Penn State Wednesday, the Wildcats managed to keep the Nittany Lions on their toes, as they rallied in the second and fourth sets to keep hope alive, ultimately falling 3-2.

The match featured a ground-breaking performance by NU (10-6, 1-4 Big Ten), who hadn’t won a single set in Penn State’s Rec Hall since 1987. In fact, the Cats hadn’t won a set against the Nittany Lions, home or away, since October 2003.

Coach Keylor Chan said it was a “huge step for the team,” but the main goal was to win the match. Although this “stepping stone” may improve the team’s confidence, it does nothing for its overall record.

“We’re proud of them,” Chan said. “Not satisfied but proud.”

Chan’s frustration was noticeable when he said the team needs to find ways to win these nail-biting matches in order to bolt NU up among the nation’s best. The Cats have played several of the best teams in the country recently and have showed signs of improvement with every match.

Chan said one player who had an amazing game was freshman Yewande Akanbi. She recorded a career-best 15 kills and led NU’s dominance in the fourth set, which it conquered 25-13. The 12-point margin marks the largest deficit Penn State has lost a set by at home since 2001.

Akanbi attributes the blowout set to an almost flawless execution of offense and defense, in which everyone was doing her job.

“I honestly thought I was in a dream,” Akanbi said. “I couldn’t believe we were playing so well. Just to know that we can play volleyball at that level was amazing.”

In what turned into a nerve-wracking match, NU forced the game to five sets with its fourth-set blowout. Sophomore Stephanie Holthus said the energy around the court was endless.

“Even during timeouts we’d come over and the bench would be screaming,” Holthus said. “It was really exciting.”

Heading into the final set, Holthus said everyone had winning on her mind, but Chan said the team’s overall mentality was the same as always. The Cats would fight for every point and improve after every play.

Chan said NU executed a great scout, but the trend of shortcomings must stop if the Cats are to hold their own in the Big Ten.

“I’m upset that we lost,” Akanbi said, “but at the same time we have to stay positive because we know that we’re going to get a second chance at playing Penn State. We know that we can play at their level and we know we can play against top-10 teams.”

Akanbi said she is fully confident that the Cats will beat the Nittany Lions when they roll into Welsh-Ryan Arena this November while Holthus added NU needs to prove its skill level to its conference.

It’s undeniable the Cats’ streak-breaking match will leave a mark on NU for the rest of this season.

“We don’t let the past dictate what the future will be,” Chan said, “and I think that’s a huge cultural shift in our program. Penn State is a dynasty. They have tradition, and we’re working on that in our program. It shows that we believe and that we’re doing the right things.”

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