The Wildcats’ revamped offense debuted in spectacular fashion this weekend as Northwestern emerged victorious against No. 18 Purdue (16-11, 7-9 Big Ten) and Indiana (9-18, 1-15).
The new attack revolves around several lineup changes coach Keylor Chan made following a three-game skid.
“This time of the year you need a spark, and I thought we were getting stale,” Chan said. “I liked our (previous) lineup but I think this one gives us a little more offensive ability.”
Junior outside hitters Yewande Akanbi and Monica McGreal are seeing increased playing time. Akanbi usually subs in for attacker Kayla Morin during later sets, providing a spark off the bench. Over the past two games, she has played front row for Morin throughout the entire match. McGreal, who has emerged as a fan favorite for her destructive jump serves, is playing her first extended time in the front row. Chan likes what he has seen from the two new attackers, especially McGreal.
“We thought it was Monica’s time,” Chan said. “We really feel that she belongs and has earned her way onto the floor.”
The Boilermakers visited Evanston on Friday, but they weren’t ready for the Cats’ fresh look. Purdue charged out of the gates, riding their impressive defense to a 15-5 lead in the first set. Then, as has been the case all season, senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus’ rotation into the front row turned the tide in NU’s favor. Holthus had nine kills to lead all players in the first set and led an electrifying comeback as the Cats scored 9 of the next 10 points and went on to win the set 27-25.
It became evident that Purdue’s libero Carly Cramer is the leader of their team. She vocally directed the defense during plays and frequently stepped in front of teammates to pass. The Boilermakers’ fortunes rose and fell with Cramer’s play. Cramer peaked during the second set, as the Boilermakers crushed the Cats 25-14 to tie the game at one set apiece.
Akanbi said she believed the Cats could play better than they did during the first two sets.
“We were playing a little timid,” she said. “We just came out stronger and more confident, knowing that we could do it.”
NU’s offense erupted after the intermission. Hard-driven balls from the newly multifaceted attack caused several blocking errors from the normally disciplined Purdue front row. The Cats easily took the next two sets behind Holthus’ inspired play, to clinch the contest 3-1. She led the game with 21 kills.
NU survived Sunday’s visit from Indiana, who had lost 16 of its last 17 games. It took five sets to down the Hoosiers, who proved to be a stronger opponent than their record suggests.
“The Big Ten is just so tough,” Holthus said. “Every team in the league can play, and I don’t think their record shows how good they are at volleyball.”
The Cats took a sloppy first set, characterized by service errors and net violations on both sides. The Hoosiers tried to get their middle attack going with repeated sets to Awele Nwaeze but were unable to find a good rhythm, as Nwaeze went on to have more hitting errors than kills.
Indiana, however, began playing at an extremely high level. Outside hitter Amelia Anderson had 20 kills for the Hoosiers and helped them dictate the tempo of the game at times.
The Cats, once again, relied heavily on McGreal and Akanbi for offense. They delivered. In her second game playing front row, McGreal led all players with 21 kills, and Akanbi was second on the team with 17. As recently as last week, NU depended almost solely on Holthus to generate offense. She was third on the team with 15 kills during Sunday’s winning effort.
“I think I have complete confidence that anyone on the team can score the ball,” Holthus said. “Whoever’s hot, that’s who we want to set the ball to, and tonight that was Monica.”
After badly losing the fourth set 25-17, the Cats took control of the fifth set from the get-go and won 15-10.
After last week’s shortcomings, Chan said he believed the team was missing something.
“Yeah, I think we found a little more swag tonight,” he said.
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