Volleyball: Wildcats complete home slate

Heading into its Nov. 8 tilt with Michigan State, Northwestern faced an intriguing opportunity with a four-game home stand that included battles against three top-20 squads.

Consecutive losses to the No. 16 Spartans and No. 19 Wolverines sullied the first part of the slate, but the Wildcats can salvage their Welsh-Ryan marathon by securing a pair of season sweeps in the back half.

NU (14-12, 6-8 Big Ten) will face its third consecutive ranked opponent when it takes on No. 18 Purdue (16-9, 7-7) Friday night and will finish off its home series two days later with a match against Indiana (9-16, 1-13).

The two contests may not be the gauntlet the Cats experienced last weekend with the Michigan squads, but they are still Big Ten play.

In those previous matches, NU came out firing on the attacking front early — only to see its numbers drop precipitously as the game progressed. Against the Spartans, the Cats hit .389 in an opening set victory and then proceeded to put up percentages of .176, .065 and .073 in three losing stanzas. A second-set number of .364 in the Michigan match was followed by marks of .139 and .163 thereafter.

This up-and-down work from the offense could prove disastrous if it carries on.

As a key cog in NU’s attacking efforts, freshman setter Caleigh Ryan knows this situation must be remedied.

“Overall as a team, we’ve been pretty inconsistent these last two matches,” Ryan said. “This week we’ve really been focusing on playing strong the entire game and we’ve been making some possible lineup adjustments. So that’s a little bit different, too.”

In their previous encounters with their upcoming foes, the Cats were able to facilitate successful attacks from a number of sources.

Even then, it took NU five sets to beat both squads. And little has changed. Purdue is ranked in the top 20, as it was then, and although Indiana is in the midst of a four-game losing skid, the Hoosiers took down the Spartans on the road less than three weeks ago.

This time, though, the matches are at home for the Cats, and they may have found something in their previously mediocre blocking game.

In matches against Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State, the team was outblocked 11-17, 7-18 and 3-11, respectively. But NU turned the screw versus Michigan, notching a 14-4 advantage in that category. 

Such a turnaround could be huge. That added blocking component gives the Cats increased presence up front and, as outside hitter Monica McGreal pointed out, it also does wonders for the back row.

“Blocking sets up our whole defense,” the junior said. “Depending on how the block is, that’s where we’re going to go to play defense. Blocking well is a huge advantage there.”

Of course, statistics don’t always tell the whole story. Coach Keylor Chan did not think the Michigan game was an epiphany in the blocking game, as he isn’t convinced his team was as bad as the numbers showed in the trio of matches with egregious negative blocking margins.

Then again, he concedes blocking is an area where the team needs to make major strides.

“Blocking is kind of a misnomer sometimes — you can makes good blocks, but they don’t count on the stat sheet,” Chan said. “We’re definitely focused on blocking though. It’s an area we can improve on in these last three weeks.”

There are just six games remaining in the Big Ten season, and this weekend marks a chance for the Cats to climb back to a .500 conference record before three road contests.

Both opponents are on the players’ minds, but a victory over the Boilermakers could make a statement.

“Last time we played Purdue it was a close game, so we know they’re going to come out and really want to beat us,” Ryan said. “But that makes us even more fired up to prove that we’re a team that can beat Purdue, a top-25 team.  We want to make the (NCAA) tournament. That’s the ultimate goal.”

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