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Volleyball: Wildcats look for first Big Ten win in home opener against Illinois

Symone+Abbott+goes+up+for+a+swing.+The+senior+outside+hitter+will+look+to+lead+the+Wildcats+against+Illinois+on+Saturday.
Symone Abbott goes up for a swing. The senior outside hitter will look to lead the Wildcats against Illinois on Saturday.

Symone Abbott goes up for a swing. The senior outside hitter will look to lead the Wildcats against Illinois on Saturday.

(Daily file photo by Katie Pach)

(Daily file photo by Katie Pach)

Symone Abbott goes up for a swing. The senior outside hitter will look to lead the Wildcats against Illinois on Saturday.

Jonah Dylan, Sports Editor

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With several freshmen playing critical roles, Northwestern deftly rolled through its nonconference slate. But on Wednesday the Wildcats got a reality check when they were swept by No. 13 Purdue.

Now, NU (10-3, 0-1 Big Ten) will look for its first conference win against Illinois (10-2, 1-0) on Saturday night. The game will be the Cats’ home opener but will be held at Evanston Township High School, where the team will play this season while Welsh-Ryan Arena is renovated.

Before the loss to the Boilermakers, NU won 10 nonconference games and nine matches in a row — its longest winning streak since 2012. The Cats won both the Duke Invitational and DePaul Invitational during their win streak.

At DePaul, NU went undefeated and cruised to the tournament title. Senior setter Taylor Tashima, who’s currently fifth in school history with 3,548 assists, was named MVP of the tournament.

Senior outside hitter Symone Abbott said NU will have to limit its mistakes against the Fighting Illini.

“It’s a lot about our side of the net,” she said. “They’re not nearly as big as Purdue, people-wise, and I think if we play as well as we did (against Purdue) but give it a little bit more, it’s just about our serve receive and our serving to get them out of system.”

The Cats have been bolstered by freshman outside hitter Nia Robinson, who sits at seventh in the Big Ten with 3.55 kills per set. She’s helped take pressure off Abbott, who hasn’t had to carry the offensive load as much as she has in the past.

And with a capable hitter across from her, Abbott has shined. In the loss to Purdue, she tallied 11 kills, moving her into sole possession of ninth place for career kills at NU. She’s currently second in the Big Ten in kills per set with 4.37 and leads the conference in total kills with 188 on the season.

Illinois will present a unique challenge for the Cats. The Fighting Illini lead the Big Ten with 3.36 blocks per set, something coach Shane Davis said NU is ready for.

“They’re a great blocking team,” he said. “We’ve got to pass well in order to keep their block a little bit honest.”

In 2016 — Davis’ first season as coach — the Cats began Big Ten play by losing eight straight matches before upsetting then-No. 24 Purdue. They eventually ended the season with a 3-17 record in conference play.

This season, NU will try to get off to a better start. After battling Illinois, the Cats will face Rutgers and then No. 2 Penn State — navigating a conference that has three teams ranked in the top five in the most recent poll.

Tashima said she’s looking forward to playing her first home game of the season against a Big Ten opponent.

“We just have to bring the same game we brought tonight without the unforced errors,” she said. “It’ll be great to play in front of a home crowd for the first time this season since Welsh-Ryan is under construction. We’re all really looking forward to that.”

Joseph Wilkinson contributed reporting.

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