Volleyball: Northwestern preps for home battle with in-state rival


Annabel Edwards/Daily Senior Staffer

eshman Kayla Morin beams and high-fives a teammate during the Cats’ match against Penn State. After a 3-0 loss to the Nittany Lions, NU hopes to bounce back at home Wednesday when they face Illinois.

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Northwestern will get a reprieve from competing against ranked foes Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but if there’s one thing to learn about the Big Ten, it’s that no opponent in this conference is ever easy.

The Wildcats (12-8, 4-4 Big Ten), three days after a straight-sets loss to then-No. 4 Penn State, will take on Illinois (8-10, 4-4). 

Despite the discrepancy in regular-season records, though, NU should be in for quite a battle.

The Fighting Illini, according to the NCAA RPI, have played the nation’s toughest schedule in 2013, with matches against nine top-25 squads and 15 in the top 50 already in the rearview mirror. Additionally, Illinois competed against the same eight opponents as NU to start its conference slate, finishing with the same 4-4 mark. 

Coach Keylor Chan certainly knows what his squad is up against and isn’t fooled into underestimating this opponent’s matter-of-fact attacking method.

“They run a simple offense, which makes it difficult because you know what’s coming and you’ve just got to stop it,” Chan said. “We’re really going to have to control their outside hitters, and we’re going to have to be patient because they’re not going to make a lot of errors. They’re really good — we’ll have to play real well to come out with a victory.”

Defending against Illinois’ outsider hitters will be key for the Cats, as the visiting squad employs the duo of Jocelynn Birks (3.83 kills per set) and Liz McMahon (3.03 kills per set) to set the tone in the front court.

Unfortunately for NU, the team was unable to register a single block against Penn State on Sunday. Yet, one only has to look to the previous match against then-No. 17 Ohio State to see that the Cats can produce in that phase of the game.

In that four-set victory, NU blocked the Buckeyes nine times. The team has also reached that mark in three other Big Ten matches thus far.

The ability is there — NU just has to capitalize on it.

What is the team’s strategy against Illinois?

Middle blocker Savannah Paffen, who leads the team with 0.87 blocks per set, offered the answer.

“Illinois sets a slower tempo than other Big Ten teams,” the junior said. “If we just wait on our block, we will be able to have plenty of time to get out there and form a solid block against them.”

The offense cannot be forgotten, though. After all, NU’s attack played a large role in the three-game winning streak before the Penn State loss.

The balance of the strikers was a consistent theme. Five players produced at least eight kills against Indiana, four showed up in double figures against then-No. 20 Purdue and the trio of Kayla Morin, Stephanie Holthus and Katie Dutchman notched 17, 14 and 11 kills, respectively, versus Ohio State.

As outside hitter Monica McGreal points out, such an effort needs to continue against Illinois. After all, when the Cats can score from more than one person, it leaves opponents in a weakened position.

“It’s definitely super important,” the junior said. “When we can attack teams from all different aspects, it keeps them on their heels, and it lets us be aggressive.”

NU will need a lot of its firepower to click in order to claim victory over the Fighting Illini Wednesday. The Cats have done it against greater opponents in Purdue and Ohio State, so there is plenty of reason to think they can pull this one out, too.

And a win at home to put NU over the .500 conference mark would certainly be sweet.

“That would be huge,” Paffen said. “The Big Ten is a tough conference, and it’s been a mix-up this year. Teams have been getting unexpected wins, and for us to be 5-4, it puts us in a great position for the second half of the season.”

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