Volleyball: NU unable to keep up with No. 1 Illinois

Steven Montero

“Don’t miss.”

Those were the words racing through Mary Grace Gallagher’s head as she tried to fend off match point from the service line.

The senior libero succeeded in her goal, avoiding any service errors, but Northwestern was unable to muster much of a comeback as it lost three straight sets to No. 1 Illinois.

The Wildcats were virtually perfect Wednesday night but the Fighting Illini proved a tough foe on the offensive end, claiming 48 kills to NU’s 31. On the other hand, the Cats did have more team blocks then their opponents, showing improvement in an area where they had dragged their paws before.

Coach Keylor Chan said that NU did a “solid” job overall.

“Illinois is a great team,” Chan said, “and when you play great teams, you got to rise to that occasion. I don’t think it was anything that we didn’t do. Illinois was very good tonight.”

That didn’t mean Chan was content with the result. The 12th-year coach exploded with frustration when a controversial call by the official gave Illinois its match point in the third set. A spiked ball from sophomore Stephanie Holthus ricocheted back off a block, bouncing off her head and back over the net to fall on the Fighting Illini’s side of the court. Although it would appear that the Cats had won the point, the first official ignored Chan’s cries and declared the ball out on Holthus, a decision that Chan called “an impossibility.”

Nevertheless Chan said he was particularly impressed by the performances of three of his veteran players, including Holthus, who accumulated the majority of NU’s kills with 17. Junior setter Madalyn Shalter added a kill, 26 assists and 10 digs, while fellow junior Julie Chin led the team with 22 digs.

Shalter said the Cats managed to leash onto Michelle Bartsch, the Fighting Illini’s outside hitter. According to the junior, NU had aimed to stop Illinois’ outside hitters as part of its game plan and that the Cats executed it well.

“Our passing got better throughout the game,” Shalter said, “and outsides had a tremendous game, making big swings for us against a big block out there.”

Although Illinois handed NU a swift defeat on its home court, the Cats said that they can grow from the experience. Gallagher said that the Cats’ hitters excelled against the Fighting Illini’s defense, but NU lost valuable points as it struggled to make adjustments throughout the match. The Cats’ failure to control the Fighting Illini’s middle hitters proved especially detrimental.

Shalter said that the Cats are teetering on the edge of glory.

“Every game we get closer and closer and soon it has to be our time to just go off,” Shalter said. “We’re not getting blown out at all. We’re right there within two or three points. Our team – we’re good – we’re not giving up at all. At practice we’re not lollygagging around. We work hard every time we’re out on the court and it shows.”

For the time being, Gallagher said the Cats know that they can win and are working to prove it. She said the only thing missing is energy.

“The skills are there, the execution is there,” Gallagher said. “It’s just for some reason we can’t get over that hump. Hopefully it will be this weekend in Iowa. We’re away, we’re getting out of here for a little bit and hopefully the new arena will spark something in us.”

[email protected]