Volleyball: Wildcats looking for good play heading into Big Ten slate

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Northwestern has yet to hit its Big Ten schedule, but the season has already proven to be dramatic. No, the Wildcats have not been immersed in a series of heart-stopping five-set battles, with only two contests reaching the fifth set and neither one being particularly close. Instead, it’s the win-loss column that has been something to behold.

NU holds a 5-4 record, a mark that significantly undersells the fluctuations the team has experienced. The Cats began the season dropping their first two matches and stormed back quickly, posting four consecutive victories in a nine-day stretch.

The team then hit some trouble in Honolulu, dropping two in a row to Arizona (7-2) and No. 7 Hawaii (8-1). The defeats dropped NU to 4-4 before a win over Portland State (3-7) boosted the squad back over .500.

That is where the team stands heading into the final stretch before Big Ten play. NU will be back on its home court Friday to face off against two nonconference opponents, South Florida (5-6) and Miami (OH) (8-1), in hopes of pushing the team’s record further north. A third team, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (4-8), will come to Evanston to take on the Cats on Sunday afternoon.

Considering the team’s up-and-down record thus far, one might believe coach Keylor Chan is still searching for answers from his troops as this stretch approaches.

Actually, quite the opposite.

“We’ve just continued to train. We’ve been training really well as a team, that’s the foundation of playing great volleyball,” Chan said. “And now we’re trying to translate that consistently into match play. Overall, we’ve been very pleased with the progress of our team and where we’re moving.”

Whatever the record might say, NU has received consistency from some of its key players.

Stephanie Holthus came into her senior year a highly decorated player, earning an AVCA All-America selection last season, being named a preseason All-Big Ten player and already stitching her name on the all-time lists at NU. The outside hitter produced 4.27 kills per set while hitting .242 in 2012, numbers that have dropped to 3.53 and .217, respectively, this season.

Yet Holthus does remain a force to be reckoned with. After all, the senior did win MVP honors for the Wildcat Challenge tournament in early September.

As for the team’s recent performance heading into Friday, she likes what she’s seen.

“Against Portland State, we as a team did a lot of things that we hadn’t done the two previous matches before that,” Holthus said. “The passers did a great job getting the ball to our setter, and our setter did a great job distributing the ball, so it opened up a lot of opportunities for everyone.”

Some other key players on the squad include redshirt sophomore libero Caroline Niedospial, the team leader in digs; freshman outside hitter Kayla Morin, second on the squad in kills and digs; and senior middle blocker Savannah Paffen, who leads in blocks and is third in kills.

But the setter is the cog of the machine, and NU certainly is no slouch in that department.

Freshman Caleigh Ryan has held down the fort there for most of the season. Ryan has consistently ignored her youth, offering up 11.07 assists per set this season, a mark that is second in the Big Ten and 31st in the nation.

The position demands a great deal of responsibility on a young player, but Ryan doesn’t mind the added stress being a setter might bring.

“It’s really important because as a setter I kind of dictate how the hitters hit, so I really need to be on and giving good balls for us to be successful,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s pressure at all, it’s just something that comes natural and it’s not too difficult.”

With these pieces in place, the Cats have a shot at sweeping their home slate this weekend. Chan noted that all three opponents sit in a similar position as NU, making this a set of matches that could tell a lot about the team.

For Chan, these contests offer a chance for his squad to really make a mark heading into Big Ten play.

“All these teams coming in, we’re all very similar, we’re all hovering around .500,” Chan said. “Taking care of home court is a big deal, and this team understands that. I think this is a weekend for us to really establish ourselves and create some momentum going into the Big Ten (season).”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @KevinCasey19