Volleyball: Northwestern needs to improve on ‘little things’

David Lee, Reporter

The Wildcats just can’t seem to perfect the little things.

Northwestern fell to No. 13 Michigan State (19-7, 8-6 Big Ten) and No. 17 Michigan (16-9, 6-8) this weekend in two tightly contested four-set matches.

“If you don’t do the little things well, then you’re going to come up on some losing stretches,” coach Keylor Chan said, echoing the sentiment of the weekend.

Against the Spartans on Friday, the little things were more pronounced and easier to see on the stat sheet. After the Cats took an electrifying 26-24 first set victory, they were unable to carry that momentum into the later sets. Michigan State dominated NU in the front row, finishing the game with eight more team blocks than the Cats’ three. Behind outside hitter Lauren Wicinski’s three solo blocks, the Spartan front row contained the Cats’ hitting percentage to .176.

After a few intimidating blocks and middle attacks by Michigan State in the second set, the Spartans established control and never let it go. Chan said Michigan State was dictating the flow of the game, but the momentum never completely swung in the Cats’ favor.

“You have to attack the block. You can’t fear it,” Chan said. “You can’t give them roll shots and free balls, and that’s what you saw. In layman’s terms, they were hitting it hard at us, and we weren’t hitting it hard enough back at them.”

Redshirt junior Katie Dutchman is usually a potent offensive weapon, but the right side attacker was kept well in check by the Spartan defense. She echoed Chan’s statement that a lack of mental toughness and willingness to combat the block led to the loss.

“(The blockers are) definitely in the back of your mind as you’re going up and you’ve gotten blocked or you’ve seen your teammates get blocked,” she said. “It does change the way you think.”

Down 22-11 in the fourth set, NU mounted a defiant last stand, winning 3 straight points. A net violation by setter Caleigh Ryan ended the Cats’ run and was the final blow.

NU looked much better against Michigan on Sunday but couldn’t muster enough to capture victory. The Wolverines looked strong overall and did a great job punishing every small mistake that the Cats made. The extremely skilled Michigan middle blockers, a tandem that features third team All-American Jennifer Cross, swatted down every slight overpass. Every weak NU attack was answered with a strong middle reaction.

One bright spot was the stark improvement in the Cats’ own blocking. Senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus said she was pleased with NU’s blocking Sunday.

“The blockers were just really disciplined,” she said. “On Friday we were flying all over the place, and we were more disciplined with what we wanted to take away and where we wanted to force their attackers.”

But it just wasn’t enough.

The X factor for the Cats is the streaky play of freshman outside hitter Kayla Morin. She is currently the de facto second option for the team, with four fewer attempts than Holthus during the last two matches combined. Although she has earned her starting spot and has occasional flashes of brilliance on the court, NU cannot seem to generate enough offense when Morin is not playing at her peak. Against Michigan and Michigan State, she hit .100 on 90 attempts.

“Playing consistently is really hard against these good teams in the Big Ten,” Morin said. “Every match is a new match, so you never really know what you’re going to get.”

If NU is looking to make a post-season push, what they need to get from Morin is nothing short of her absolute best.

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