Volleyball: Northwestern splits conference openers


Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

Defensive specialist Abbie Kraus played in both Wildcat matches over the weekend. The Northwestern defense showed its strength against Nebraska and Iowa as junior Savannah Paffen set a career-high eight blocks facing the Cornhuskers and nearly repeated the feat Saturday, stopping the Hawkeyes cold seven times.

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Northwestern (9-5, 1-1 Big Ten) opened its conference schedule this weekend against Nebraska and Iowa, experiencing two days full of progress and frustration.

The Wildcats faced the No. 12 Cornhuskers at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday night, and two years after NU shocked the visitors in four sets, it was Nebraska’s turn to win it in four.

(Volleyball: Northwestern stuns No. 2 Nebraska, keeps NCAA hopes alive)

That didn’t mean the victory was easy, though, especially in front of a fired-up and hostile crowd.

“It was a really exciting atmosphere, first night of Big Tens,” said Kayla Morin, a freshman outside hitter. “It kind of felt like the first real home match we’ve had, just with the bands and the fans. It was really electrifying.”

The Cornhuskers were hardly affected by the crowd at the start.

Nebraska (9-2, 2-0) charged out in the first frame, cruising to a 25-16 opening-set win. NU then responded in a big way, using a bevy of blocks to stake itself out to a 6-1 lead in set number two and holding on from there for a 25-20 score that put the match at 1-1.

Blocking was a key theme in practice for the Cats this week and manifested itself beautifully, not only in this set but also for the entire weekend.

“We worked on blocking so much this past week, blocking from attacks, transitioning from pin to middle,” said Savannah Paffen, the junior middle blocker who had 15 block assists this weekend. “It really came in handy these two days. You can see that in our number of blocks per game.”

Indeed, NU compiled 19 total blocks in seven sets over the weekend, executing 2.7 blocks per set, more than a half point over its season average.

However shored up that part of the game was, the momentum from the second set quickly evaporated. Nebraska turned up the pressure and attacked the Cats on the back half of the defense. As much as NU got up front from its blocking, the team had massive problems stopping any attacks that got beyond the first row.

Nebraska’s Kelsey Robinson and Kadie Rolfzen put on a show in Evanston, producing a combined 44 kills at a .411 clip. 

Robinson was especially dominant with 25 kills at .438, and combined with the Cornhuskers’ stellar blocking in the final two sets, it was too much for the Cats to deal with.

Even though a loss is a loss, the effort wasn’t a total negative, coach Keylor Chan said.

“I was really happy with everything but the outcome,” Chan said. “Obviously we wanted to win, and we had some execution errors and against a team of that caliber, you can’t have any execution errors. What I really liked was the consistency of play, and that kind of consistency can lead us to great things.”

A weaker opponent the next day brought a better result. NU was up against Iowa (9-5, 0-2) Saturday night and took care of business.

The Cats struggled out of the gate, frittering away points with a number of errors to fall down 11-12 in the first set.

Then, the positives from the previous night prevailed. The blocking picked up, and the offense came on queue.

NU knocked down 14 of the next 18 points to capture the first set 25-16. Closer scores of 25-22 and 25-20 followed, but those sets both ended in triumphs for the home squad.

It was a straight-sets victory for the Cats, a promising result after a tough start to the weekend.

Even better, the normally dominant senior Stephanie Holthus, who did her best with 20 kills against Nebraska, had help against Iowa.

In addition to Holthus’ 12 kills against the Hawkeyes, freshman Kayla Morin had 16 and redshirt junior Katie Duchman produced 12 more, representing a three-pronged weapon that could serve NU well if it develops.

“If everyone’s involved in the offense, it makes it a lot more formidable,” Morin said. “The other team doesn’t really know where we’re going to go.”

Chan believes the team still needs to improve on the serving game and on the defense’s back end.

The players know those flaws and are anything but down on their squad.

“We’re pretty confident — we came out and we played hard both nights,” Paffen said. “Our play just keeps improving, so we’re going to do pretty well this year.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @KevinCasey19