Volleyball: Northwestern drops home opener to Illinois


Daily file photo by Jonathan Dai

Gabrielle Hazen goes up for a block. The senior middle blocker tallied eight kills in Northwestern’s loss to Illinois on Saturday.

Peter Warren, Reporter


Northwestern started strong against Illinois but struggled as the match progressed, falling to its in-state rivals 3-0 Saturday in the Wildcats’ first home match of the season.

The loss is the third time in a row NU has been swept after reeling off a nine-game winning streak during nonconference play.

NU (10-4, 0-2 Big Ten) played its best volleyball in the first set, taking the court with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. A six-point swing highlighted by three aces from senior outside hitter Symone Abbott and two kills from senior middle blocker Gabrielle Hazen gave the Cats a 15-13 lead midway through the first set.

“As a team, we came out strong, which is not usually one of our strengths,” freshman outside hitter Nia Robinson said. “We had a very good start, so I thought that was good for us.”

With the set tied at 21, sophomore libero Sarah Johnson, who had a team-high eight digs, committed a service error to put the Fighting Illini (11-2, 2-0) up one. Illinois did not relinquish the lead, as NU committed two more service errors in the set allowing the Fighting Illini to win 25-23.

Mistakes plagued the Cats throughout the match. In total, they committed 21 attack errors and 11 service errors compared to seven and three, respectively, for Illinois.

“We did a nice job on Wednesday serving against Purdue, but tonight it was the timeliness (of the errors),” coach Shane Davis said. “After we had a big block, we would go back and miss our serve or after a timeout, we would miss our serve.”

NU could not recover after losing the first set, dropping the next two by scores of 25-19 and 25-13. The Cats did not hold a lead in either set and struggled to score, with a team hitting percentage of .167 in the second set and .065 in the third.

The Cats managed to go on small runs in the second and third sets: During an eight-point stretch in the second set, Robinson had three kills and NU won six points to close the Fighting Illini’s lead to 21-19.

“We can go on a lot of runs,” said Hazen, who led the team with a .538 hitting percentage. “We can be very good in spurts. It is more maintaining that execution. It is being able to play from zero to 25 instead of just for five points here and there.”

Saturday was NU’s first game at Evanston Township High School, where the Cats will play this season as Welsh-Ryan Arena is renovated. Beardsley has a capacity of 2,400 people compared to 8,117 at the pre-renovated Welsh-Ryan. The smaller gym leads to a more energetic environment, which players and coaches noticed and embraced.

Hazen said the compact environment brought the fans closer to the court compared to the expansive layout of Welsh-Ryan. She said she “loved” the new location because she could feel the fans’ energy.

Although NU has struggled to open Big Ten play, the attitude in the locker room is hopeful heading into next weekend’s matches at Rutgers and No. 2 Penn State.

“For where we are at right now, two games into the Big Ten, the future is super bright,” Hazen said. “We can only get better from here. I feel like we are doing some great things. There are a couple of areas that we can improve on. Once we improve those, we are going to be a beast.”

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