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Volleyball: Wildcats face top-15 squads on road

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Volleyball: Wildcats face top-15 squads on road

Freshman setter Caleigh Ryan celebrates with her teammates during the Wildcat Classic in September. Northwestern defeated both Indiana and Purdue in five-set thrillers on the road this weekend. Ryan received the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award for her efforts.

Freshman setter Caleigh Ryan celebrates with her teammates during the Wildcat Classic in September. Northwestern defeated both Indiana and Purdue in five-set thrillers on the road this weekend. Ryan received the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award for her efforts.

Annabel Edwards/The Daily Northwestern

Freshman setter Caleigh Ryan celebrates with her teammates during the Wildcat Classic in September. Northwestern defeated both Indiana and Purdue in five-set thrillers on the road this weekend. Ryan received the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award for her efforts.

Annabel Edwards/The Daily Northwestern

Annabel Edwards/The Daily Northwestern

Freshman setter Caleigh Ryan celebrates with her teammates during the Wildcat Classic in September. Northwestern defeated both Indiana and Purdue in five-set thrillers on the road this weekend. Ryan received the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award for her efforts.

Kevin Casey, Reporter

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While Northwestern’s Big Ten opener did bring No. 10 Nebraska to Evanston, the Wildcats may face an even tougher slate this weekend.

NU (9-5, 1-1 Big Ten) will find itself on the road for the first time in three weeks when it takes on No. 14 Michigan (10-3, 0-2) in Ann Arbor Friday night. And if that isn’t difficult enough, the Cats head off to East Lansing the next evening in an attempt to topple mighty No. 9 Michigan State (13-1, 2-0).

It’s a pair of match-ups that will test the visitors thoroughly, even early in Big Ten season.

In a conference full of top-of-the-line talent, NU relishes the opportunity to test itself against the best.

“It’s a challenge just like anything else. Playing in the Big Ten is always brutal,” said Stephanie Holthus, NU’s star senior outside hitter. “You’re playing the best competition, and that’s how you get better. (Michigan and Michigan State) are two great teams. They’re going to play great volleyball, really good on their home court. We’ve got to come out and play.”

If anybody needs to show up against two top-15 squads, Holthus leads NU’s list.

For much of the season, Holthus has been the team’s go-to-girl in the attacking sphere. In her final campaign, the 2012 AVCA All-American is notching 4.23 kills per set, a mark that puts her 24th in the nation. She’s been even more impressive of late, putting up 5.56 kills per set in her last five matches and doing so at a .314 clip, well above her .255 season average.

But the senior was aided in the Cats’ straight sets victory over Iowa on Saturday by the pair of Kayla Morin and Katie Dutchman, who notched a combined 28 kills in three stanzas.

The offense is just one side of NU’s game.

The Cats’ blocking improved exponentially in its efforts against Nebraska and Iowa, much of that due to a special focus in practice on that phase.

The defense behind the tall girls up front was not quite as stellar, as the back half of the unit produced a fair amount of nice plays but suffered what coach Keylor Chan called “execution errors” and felt the wrath of Nebraska’s Kelsey Robinson to the tune of 25 kills knocked down at a whopping .438 rate.

The Wolverines don’t have an attacking presence like Robinson but are no less formidable up front.

Michigan employs a trifecta of talented strikers to finish off points, with Molly Toon, Jennifer Cross and Lexi Erwin all bringing home around three kills per set this season.

All of that might spell trouble for NU.

Libero Caroline Niedospial isn’t fretting.

“Every Big Ten team has one or two go-to hitters, and it’s all the same whoever’s hitting. Everyone’s really good in the Big Ten,” the redshirt sophomore said. “I actually thought we played pretty good defense against (Nebraska), and this week we’re definitely going to have to come out and play good defense again.”

As for the Spartans, their edge generates more from the defensive end. The squad has popped off 2.6 blocks per set in its 14 matches thus far, good enough for third in a highly competitive Big Ten.

Whatever the case, the Cats will have their hands full in both matches this weekend.

Michigan and Michigan State are the second- and third-ranked opponents NU will face in Big Ten competition, only the start of a slate that, for now, includes a total of 14 ranked foes. 

This doesn’t intimidate the Cats, who are focusing solely on this weekend’s opponents and nothing else.

“We have the same mindset going into Big Ten play: Every game is just as important as the next,” Niedospial said. “We just need to play our game and hopefully get two road wins.”

E-mail: kevincasey2015@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @KevinCasey19

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About the Writer
Kevin Casey, Sports Editor

He has worked as an assistant editor and a reporter for the Daily in the past. He is from Duxbury, Massachusetts and has interned at Comcast SportsNet...