Volleyball: Cats stun No. 15 Golden Gophers with straight-set victory

Steven Montero

The Wildcats scored the first point of the weekend. And the second. And they never looked back.

Northwestern (13-10, 4-8 Big Ten) redeemed two of its losses from earlier this season when it vanquished No. 15 Minnesota (13-8, 6-6) and Wisconsin (13-11, 5-7) last weekend to increase its winning streak to three matches.

Friday’s victory against the Golden Gophers showcased the immense improvement of a young team that has now found its stride. Knocking out their opponents in three straight sets, the Cats were flawless with their blocking and suffered only four service errors.

“This is a result of a lot of hard work over the season,” coach Keylor Chan said. “The girls were able to play consistently at a high level over time, and that’s what you have to do to win in the Big Ten. Everyone really played well.”

Chan said NU executed a good scout and was able to control Minnesota’s go-to hitters, including Tori Dixon, who was only able to attack the ball five times throughout the match. Chan said the Cats were serving their opponents “out of system,” and as a result, the Golden Gophers couldn’t get the ball to their sophomore star.

Sophomore Stephanie Holthus gave NU match point in the third set with a thunderous kill, and then another kill, this time by redshirt freshman Katie Dutchman, sealed the match in the Cats’ favor. NU had trailed 17-14 in the third set, when the Cats rode a series of Minnesota errors to an 8-0 run that put them in firm control of the match. According to Holthus, they were able to ignite a fire to “just send them home” after having won the first two sets.

“It wasn’t a rollercoaster,” she said. “We played well straight through.”

Holthus added that their victory over the Golden Gophers, the first top-25 upset the Cats have mustered since the 2010 NCAA Tournament, kept spirits high for their remaining opponents.

The excitement carried into Saturday when NU handled Wisconsin with significant ease in the first set, carving out a double-digit lead that stuck until the end, as the Cats took it home 25-12. NU couldn’t push its seven-set win streak any farther, however, as it dropped the next two sets, 25-27 and 22-25.

Unforced errors sounded the death knell during the second and third sets, costing NU 11 points in each set. Chan said the Cats’ blocking was “troublesome” during this time and that attacking errors gave the Badgers points.

“In set three we were just a little flat,” Chan said. “We struggled blocking their outside hitter’s attack. They kept on tooling us and we tried to make adjustments, but we couldn’t.”

After suffering their fair share of disappointment, the Cats were ready to take their gloves off. Firing off shot after shot and playing clean volleyball, NU amassed a 17-6 lead in the fourth set, crippling Wisconsin’s momentum and ultimately forcing a fifth set.

In the final set, the Cats jumped out to a 10-4 lead, behind four kills. As Chan said, the team “just refused to lose,” holding onto a firm lead throughout en route to a 15-8 win.

Junior setter Madalyn Shalter, who went on serving streaks in both matches over the weekend, said NU remained “aggressive” and it pushed the Cats to their first five-set victory of the season.

“I am so proud of our team coming back, winning in five and winning three in a row in the Big Ten,” Shalter said. “This is definitely the hump that we got over, and now hopefully we just stick it out from here and keep on going. Everybody played well. Everybody showed up tonight.”

The Cats are ecstatic about their victories, according to freshman Yewande Akanbi, who said the wins provide hope and confidence as well as a “road to dominating the Big Ten.”

Although domination seems difficult this season with seven Big Ten teams in the top 25, NU has momentum as it heads into matchups this weekend with No. 11 Purdue and an Indiana team that provided the team’s first Big Ten win on Oct. 1.

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