Volleyball: Wildcats look to boost NCAA Tournament hopes entering two-match weekend

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Last week, coach Keylor Chan made significant lineup changes to spark his squad and saw his efforts rewarded with a pair of victories. Northwestern fired out to a four-set win over then-No. 18 Purdue and triumphed against Indiana in a match that went the distance. 

This weekend, those tweaks will be put to the ultimate test.

In its final road trip of the regular season, NU (16-12, 8-8 Big Ten) will start its journey with a pair of tough contests Friday and Saturday night. Those back-to-back evenings will include battles against No. 2 Penn State (24-2, 15-1) and Ohio State (16-12, 4-12).

The former, of course, is the mightier of the two squads and is unlikely to fall without a near flawless performance from the Wildcats. But the Buckeyes are no slouches. Ohio State won its first 13 matches of the season and possesses victories over Michigan and Purdue — two top-25 squads — on its resume.

Put bluntly, any persistent lack of execution will doom NU.

“We’re going to have to bring our A-game for sure,” outside hitter Monica McGreal said. “Everybody will have to be on and really work together as a team in order to win.”

If anybody can talk about being “on,” it’s McGreal. The junior was the source of one of Chan’s roster shake-ups, with her increased role in the front row and shift into a full-time attacking mode. McGreal responded with 11 kills against the Boilermakers and then turned it up a notch, producing a career-high 21 terminations versus Indiana.

She was hardly the only success story on that front. Junior outside hitter Yewande Akanbi received a similar attacking designation and mirrored McGreal’s 11 kills in the opening match. Her 17 in the next contest didn’t match McGreal’s total but was still quite impressive. Redshirt junior Katie Dutchman moved to the middle in the front row and was a force against the Hoosiers, providing her squad with two solo blocks and eight block assists.

All of these contributions could prove vital in the Penn State contest — especially Dutchman’s blocking.

The Nittany Lions lead the nation in blocks per set at 3.13. Penn State employs 6-foot-6 Katie Slay as the enforcer, with 1.68 blocks per set. She’s hardly the only player to avoid on the front row though. Six others have at least .6 blocks per set.

The Nittany Lions outdid the Cats 9-0 in that category in their straight-sets victory last month and, overall, have captured 27 of their last 28 stanzas played. NU is cognizant of what it’ll have to face up front.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Dutchman said. “Penn State’s a really, really big team, and they’re usually the powerhouse blocking team. What we need to work on is staying low and not letting them tool us because sometimes the big hitters think they can just hit over us. So if we can soft block them, it works out pretty well.”

The Buckeyes have no such blocking power. The team is at a mere 2.1 per set in that statistic and isn’t exceedingly dangerous in any category. The Cats also dispatched the Buckeyes in four sets in their first meeting.

Still, Dutchman admitted the program has a “bad reputation” for their play in Columbus. Her coach added that despite the 4-12 conference record, Ohio State is not a team to scoff at.

“The Buckeyes are another team fighting like we are,” Chan said. “There are three or four teams in the Big Ten that are fighting for a postseason berth. We’re going to have to go out and execute some of the things we did the first time at an extremely high level. I expect Ohio State to be really good.”

NU’s NCAA tournament hopes could get a big boost this weekend if all cylinders are firing — and Chan knows it.

“I want to see us rise to the occasion, this is the time of year where you want to play your best volleyball,” Chan said. “We want to combine our best volleyball physically with the way we’ve been fighting and competing. If we do that, it’ll be another step to where we want to be at the end of the season.”

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