Volleyball: Wildcats face intriguing opportunity at home

Kevin Casey, Reporter

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It’s been a Big Ten season marked by quality play against top-notch squads for the Wildcats, and this weekend the team has a chance to take a big step toward being considered one of the conference elite.

Northwestern (14-10, 6-6 Big Ten) is back at home Friday night to face off against No. 13 Michigan State (18-6, 7-5) and will welcome No. 17 Michigan (15-9, 5-8) to Welsh-Ryan Arena two days later.

NU is coming off a tit-for-tat battle with No. 11 Nebraska on the road, but the Cats shouldn’t be expecting sympathy from their two incoming foes.

It was just last month that the Spartans and Wolverines handled the Cats. After capturing the opening set against Michigan, NU dropped the next six stanzas. The team never mustered more than 20 points in any of those sets. 

Of course, those matches were on the road, and this time NU has the home court advantage. Yet coach Keylor Chan pointed to a different factor helping out the Cats in this second version of the Michigan double.

“We’re a different team than we were six weeks ago,” Chan said. “We know ourselves a lot better, and we understand better what we have to do as a team. We don’t have to do much, just play better volleyball, and that’s already starting to take care of itself.”

He’s not bluffing. Since those two losses, NU has faced five ranked squads, beating two of them, dragging the aforementioned Cornhuskers to five sets and being competitive in every one of these tough matches save for No. 2 Penn State.

Michigan State is likely the tougher opponent. The Spartans are the only team in the conference to beat the Nittany Lions and boast tall women like Alexis Matthews, Lauren Wicinski, Allyssah Fitterer and Chloe Reinig up front, who tower more than 6 feet.

Their height flustered the Cats the last time around, when the team hit an abysmal .082, but outside hitter Katie Dutchman believes NU has the right strategy to deal with this obstacle on Friday.

“One of the keys to victory in the scout is attacking high, through and around the block,” the redshirt junior said. “It’s a factor of understanding who’s in front of you and how best to score on them.”

If the Cats have done one thing recently, it is finding balance in their attack. Stephanie Holthus, NU’s all-time kills leader, boasts 4.03 kills per set, but Dutchman notched double-digit kills in five of her last seven matches, freshman Kayla Morin tallied 25 kills in the last two contests and junior Yewande Akanbi came up huge against Purdue and Minnesota, with 15 and 16 kills, respectively.

The Cats have struggled lately, though, dealing with opponent blocking. NU allowed a combined 35 blocks in nine sets against Minnesota and Nebraska. Michigan and Michigan State aren’t quite as formidable on that front but retain solid marks of  2.4 and 2.6 blocks per set, respectively.

Keeping that component in check will be important. Especially because, as middle blocker Maggie Burnham points out, that would allow the people behind the offense to flourish.

“Our defenders are playing great in the back row,” the redshirt sophomore said. “It’s just about getting a good block up there because we have some awesome back row players. We have to make sure that we are putting up a good block so that they can do their thing behind us.”

Can the Cats pull off the sweep? With the high level they’ve been playing at, it’s definitely within reach.

Chan isn’t doubting his squad. In fact, he says this could be the weekend when NU stakes its claim as one of the conference’s best.

“We’re playing at a top-15 level, but we still have to prove that we belong there which we haven’t done,” Chan said. “These teams are two squads that will make the (NCAA) tournament. It’s a perfect opportunity for us to show we’ve improved like we think we have.”

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