Volleyball: Fifth-set failures haunt NU in losses

Steven Montero

Northwestern played 10 grueling sets last weekend, taking both No. 22 Michigan and Michigan State to a decisive fifth set, which they lost both times.

The Wildcats (15-14, 6-12 Big Ten)managed to accumulate an impressive list of records in defeat, as freshman Yewande Akanbi had a career-high 18 kills against Michigan, and junior Julie Chin recorded 17 digs to surge past the 1,000-dig mark, becoming the 13th player in NU history to do so.

Freshman Hannah Crippen also racked up a personal-best 18 kills against Michigan State (21-9, 10-8), while sophomore Stephanie Holthus had 42 kills and 32 digs over the weekend, earning her 12th and 13th double-doubles of the season.

“Holthus played out of her mind against Michigan State, which was awesome to see,” junior Madalyn Shalter said.

“Everybody distributed what they had to do on the court. If they weren’t doing one thing right – or well – they were doing something else extremely well to make up for it. But everybody did her part to get us to five sets to have a chance to win.”

NU couldn’t turn this productive firepower into wins. After rallying from one-set deficits twice against the Wolverines (19-11, 7-11), the Cats were unable to hold on to momentum in the fifth set, falling 15-11, a score which has haunted NU in the fifth set this season. The Cats dropped fifth sets by the same score in their first conference matches against No. 9 Penn State and Michigan.

After losing to the Wolverines, the Cats had to pack their bags and head across the state into Spartans territory.

“It was pretty exhausting,” Holthus said. “Going into five on Friday and then losing and having to jump right back out the next day. It’s pretty hard on everyone, mentally, emotionally, physically. But it is what it is.”

NU established its skill in the first two sets against Michigan State, taking a 2-0 lead only to let the Spartans rally to take the next two sets and upset the Cats in the fifth.

“We gave ourselves a chance to win and we just couldn’t convert at some real critical times,” coach Keylor Chan said. “You give credit to Michigan and Michigan State for doing it, but I’m pretty proud of this group for putting it out there. It was really a great effort without question.”

Shalter said NU’s performance in the Great Lakes State marked an improvement from the Cats’ earlier bouts against the same two opponents. She said NU has gotten better each and every weekend. She also said this weekend’s performance showcased the team’s endurance.

“It was exhausting, yes, extremely tiring, but you don’t think about that when you play,” Shalter said. “You just do what you have to do out there to get a win. We fell a little short, but I’m extremely proud of how well we all played through our exhaustion.”

As NU’s Big Ten season winds down this week, Holthus reflected on how the team has grown.

“In general, we all just learned, the freshman especially, what the Big Ten is and what it’s about,” Holthus said, “how every single game you step out on the court it’s going to be a challenge and there’s no easy games in the conference.”

This week, the Cats face off against the toughest teams in the Big Ten, No. 7 Illinois and No. 4 Nebraska. NU lost to the Fighting Illini earlier this season and has yet to square off against a Cornhuskers team that has only two conference losses.

Shalter said this is the time to put everything out on the court and reap the rewards of all their hard work this season.

It is this attitude that Chan classified as the “tapestry of belief” that NU has. He said this weekend will see the “culmination” of the Cats’ efforts.

“We’ve gone the distance with some of the best teams, we’ve won some great matches, we’ve lost some heart breakers and for the most part this team’s learned to fight at this level,” Chan said. “That’s step one, and when you combine that with learning how to believe, the skill sets, and put them all together, then you’ll have a winner.

“The juniors, sophomores and freshmen know that they can do it,” Chan said, “and that’s a huge part of what we do, getting to that point where you believe unequivocally. And that’s hard. It’s hard not to question or doubt yourself when you fail, and I think this group has done it. Now they just have to go out and do it consistently.”

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