Volleyball: Northwestern commences Big Ten play on home court

Redshirt+sophomore+Caroline+Niedospial+serves+the+ball+during+the+Wildcat+Classic+last+weekend.+The+libero+heads+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+defense+with+4.49+digs+per+set+and+leads+the+team+with+15+service+aces.
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Volleyball: Northwestern commences Big Ten play on home court

Redshirt sophomore Caroline Niedospial serves the ball during the Wildcat Classic last weekend. The libero heads Northwestern’s defense with 4.49 digs per set and leads the team with 15 service aces.

Redshirt sophomore Caroline Niedospial serves the ball during the Wildcat Classic last weekend. The libero heads Northwestern’s defense with 4.49 digs per set and leads the team with 15 service aces.

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt sophomore Caroline Niedospial serves the ball during the Wildcat Classic last weekend. The libero heads Northwestern’s defense with 4.49 digs per set and leads the team with 15 service aces.

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Redshirt sophomore Caroline Niedospial serves the ball during the Wildcat Classic last weekend. The libero heads Northwestern’s defense with 4.49 digs per set and leads the team with 15 service aces.

Kevin Casey, Reporter

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The Wildcats sealed a three-match sweep Sunday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena and will have the chance to further that home court dominance as conference play starts.

Northwestern (8-4) kicks off its Big Ten schedule with a two-game home stand Friday and Saturday, facing down Nebraska and Iowa, respectively. The Cornhuskers are currently No. 12 in the country, a challenge that coach Keylor Chan revels in rather than shies away from.

“They’re a team that’s athletic and will play really good volleyball,” Chan said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. If we want to be one of those teams, you have to play these teams, and we have to show that we can compete and win.”

The battle may be one of special intrigue.

Nebraska is a historic powerhouse with a high ranking. But the greatest source of anticipation may stem from the last time these squads met in Evanston, when NU found itself up against the No. 2 Cornhuskers and beat mighty Nebraska in four sets.

That was 2011, and two years later the Cornhuskers lineup, namely with transfer Kelsey Robinson in the fold, has a much different makeup.

But some things have not changed.

“Sometimes you just match up well with some teams, and you know there’s a certain comfort level with playing certain teams,” Chan said. “Our team likes to play Nebraska. They love a good challenge, and that’s what Nebraska represents. They’re a team we have an immense amount of respect for.”

NU has more than one opponent to focus on. Nebraska is the more formidable squad, but the Cats cannot take Iowa lightly.

A team Chan characterized as a ball-control squad, the Hawkeyes actually have a better record than the Cats: 9-3. NU will need full performances from senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus, who was named Big Ten and Division I National Player of the Week for her MVP efforts at the Wildcat Classic, and freshman setter Caleigh Ryan, who received the Big Ten’s Setter and Freshman of the Week awards for her play in the same tournament.

Other players will need to step up as well.

Junior outside hitter Monica McGreal did that last week with 2.55 kills per set, a mark more than double her previous season average of 1.27.

Yewande Akanbi came up with crucial late-set kills last weekend and doesn’t downplay their significance against two tough opponents.

“It’s really important to focus in any match, any set on closing and making sure you push all the way through,” the junior outside hitter said. “Getting those last couple of kills at the end can really make a difference in matches like these.”

The defense improved significantly in the nine straight set victories NU pulled off last weekend. Redshirt sophomore Caroline Niedospial manages the Cats’ defense as their libero.

“We’ve been working on blocking and that’s really improved, that makes my job a lot easier,” she said. “We prepared well in preseason, and I know we’re all really excited to go out there and start Big Tens.”

This is only the beginning of a challenging conference slate, as the Cats are set to face a ranked opponent in 16 of 21 Big Ten matches.

In this case, a rousing start to conference play might have some importance.

“Every Big Ten opponent can beat everyone,” Chan said. “This weekend, we want to put ourselves in a great situation for the first weekend at Big Tens, especially at home. We know what we have to do, and, again, we’re looking forward to this chapter of the season.”

As for that match against Nebraska, it’s definitely a bit personal.

“We beat them freshman year, we lost to them sophomore year, now this is kind of the tiebreaker,” Akanbi said. “It’s really exciting to come in, show them what we got and know that we can beat them again like we beat them in 2011.”

Email: kevincasey2015@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @KevinCasey19

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