Volleyball: Late comeback attempt against Michigan falls short as NU completes winless weekend

Steven Montero

The Wildcats are sick of losing.

This weekend handed Northwestern another set of losses, this time at the hands of Michigan State and No. 20 Michigan, leaving the Cats’ Big Ten record at 1-7.

“Every game we get better and better, but it’s just not enough,” senior Alex Ayers said. “It’s not what we need to get success. I’m not angry – I’m just kind of frustrated. We’re all waiting for that game where we just put it all together from the start to finish and come out with a victory.”

In Friday’s match against the Spartans, the Cats (10-9, 1-7 Big Ten) couldn’t find their rhythm until the third set, just in time to evade a shut out. NU ultimately fell 3-1, as it was unable to stop impressive attacks by the Michigan State (15-5, 4-4) hitters.

Coach Keylor Chan said the Cats put in a good effort, but the Spartans’ top two attackers, Jenilee Rathje and Kyndra Abron, were at the top of their games. They combined to rack up 44 kills, two shy of NU’s overall number. Chan said the attacking duo was able to bypass the Cats’ blocks and was uncontrollable throughout the match.

Junior Madalyn Shalter said the inability to block Michigan State’s “two hot hitters” cost NU the match.

This wasn’t the case on Saturday night when the Cats shocked the Wolverines (15-5, 3-5) by overcoming a two-set deficit to force a fifth set. Sophomore Stephanie Holthus and Chan said NU blocked very well, and Holthus added that the team’s ability to stifle Michigan’s top hitters was why the Cats were able to rally back.

Due to illness, Shalter couldn’t play on Saturday, which resulted in the introduction of new talent to the court. Freshman Hannah Crippen played her first-ever Big Ten match as setter, and freshman Kirsten Watson executed “outstanding” play, according to Chan.

Chan also pointed to Katie Dutchman as an “exceptional” player throughout the contest. The redshirt freshman had one solo and 10 assisted blocks against the Wolverines. She leads the team with 91 blocks and 1.32 blocks per set.

“It was a really exciting match,” Dutchman said. “I was really proud of everyone because we fought really hard and came back the third and fourth game. We haven’t played that well as a team in a while.”

The Cats fell 15-11 in the final set, a painful reminder of their loss to Penn State earlier this month, when NU lost by the same number of points in what could have been its most incredible upset to date.

“It just shows that we have talent and we’re working on closing matches out,” Chan said. “You’ve got to continually knock on the door and eventually you’ll break it down, and when you do, you’ll understand. But it’s an experience that you can’t coach. The girls have to go out and break that barrier down.”

Holthus said the Cats’ unforced errors, which drain their leads and allow competitors to rack up easy points, are a result of inexperience. She said the young team will grow with age and that it has to avoid the serve-receive breakdowns present in the fifth set against Michigan.

According to Ayers, the answer is belief. She said that despite its recent losses, NU needs to believe that it can compete in a conference that is considered the best in the nation and has several top-25 teams within it, including No. 1 Illinois, who the Cats face Wednesday.

“You come out to a game,” Ayers said, “and you think, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re playing No. 1 – we’re playing Illinois.’ The first thing that is in your mind is doubt – like can we win? They’re undefeated.”

She said the secret to overcoming such doubt is simply keeping the faith.

“We just have to believe in our team,” Ayers said. “We’re all here for a reason. We all belong here. We belong in the Big Ten. We all want to play in the Big Ten. We knew what we were going to get, and we have to be ready to play with the best.”

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