Volleyball: Wildcats stumble down the stretch, miss NCAA Tournament opportunity

Kevin Casey, Reporter

In its final week of regular season play, Northwestern was looking to rebound from a pair of tough road losses and stake its claim to an NCAA tournament slot. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t produce the results it desperately needed.

The Wildcats (16-16, 8-12 Big Ten) traveled to Champaign, Ill., Wednesday night to take on the Fighting Illini in their final road match of the season. Illinois (16-14, 12-8) dropped NU in straight sets, 25-18, 25-23, 25-17.

A return Saturday to the confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena — an event that included a pregame ceremony celebrating the distinguished career of senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus — did the Cats no better. The home squad welcomed Wisconsin (23-9, 12-8) and was summarily trounced in another three-set showing, this time by scores of 25-19, 25-21, 25-14.

The pair of defeats put NU’s losing streak at four to finish off the regular season.

“I’m definitely disappointed, the team is disappointed, we wanted to end on a high note,” sophomore libero Caroline Niedospial said. “We just couldn’t get it together in the end. We wanted to win that last one for Holthus, but we couldn’t get it together.”

The Wednesday affair versus Illinois at one point showed promise. After the Illini took the opening set 25-18, the Cats moved out to a 19-18 lead late in stanza number two. A win there would have knotted the match at one and turned the contest into a best-out-of-three scenario.

Alas, Illinois scored 7 of the next 11 points and captured the set, 25-23.

The Fighting Illini then won set number three, and the match was over.

For coach Keylor Chan, the final moments of that second set were the biggest factor in the loss.

“We’ve pulled some magic out this year down 2-0,” Chan said. “But it’s so hard to do against teams like that.”

Against Wisconsin, the same 2-0 hole surfaced. NU dropped the opening stanza 25-19 and was down 19-13 in the second game. The Cats then roared back, scoring 8 of the next 10 points to tie it up at 21. The Badgers regrouped though, scoring on four consecutive plays to close out the set. Wisconsin then dominated the third set to secure the victory.

In the Illinois match, the NU offense suffered from inefficient play. A combination of poor passing and sloppy attacking errors meant a .183 hitting percentage versus a .357 mark on the opponent’s side. Junior Monica McGreal’s absence due to injury certainly contributed to the pedestrian showing up front.

Yet McGreal returned against Wisconsin to net nine kills, and NU was bogged down with similar issues. The Badgers’ front court was a menace throughout the match, consistently deflecting the Cats’ attacks and producing 13 blocks, a number of them at crucial times, in three sets.

Overall, NU hit .148 for the match, even worse than its Illinois showing. Holthus admitted the squad could’ve been crisper against Wisconsin but praised the opponent’s execution.

“They’re just a tough team,” Holthus said. “They come out and they’ve got a new coach and they’re playing under a new coaching staff. They’ve got a lot to push for, a lot to strive for and they played a great match.”

The Cats’ season is officially over as they failed to gather an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night. With that, Holthus’ college career at NU is finished, her last match being the Wisconsin showdown.

The all-time kills leader in NU history was emotional during the pregame honoring of her time at NU, and the departing senior still struggled to describe what that moment meant after the match.

“Can I do it without crying? That I don’t know,” Holthus said. “It was just really great to have my family out there with me in that moment. I don’t think I have words to describe it.”

Although the Cats failed to obtain a coveted slot in the NCAA Tournament, the season is not considered an abject failure from within.

A postseason berth would have added a desired dimension of course, but whatever the case, the coach said he is pleased with his squad’s effort this season.

“We’ve fought, we played in the best conference and we’ve proven we can play with the best,” Chan said. “We just need to get better. But it was a good year, nothing to hang our heads about.”

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