Volleyball: Searching for first Big Ten win, Northwestern takes on Rutgers, No. 3 Penn State


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Symone Abbott goes up for a kill. The senior outside hitter will lead the Wildcats into weekend matches with Rutgers and No. 3 Penn State.

Jonah Dylan, Sports Editor


It’s going to be a weekend of polar opposites for Northwestern.

The Wildcats (10-4, 0-2 Big Ten) travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, to take on Big Ten bottom-feeders Rutgers (5-9, 0-2) on Friday. The next night, NU will visit State College, Pennsylvania, home of perennial powerhouse No. 3 Penn State.

“They’re just a sound, consistent team,” coach Shane Davis said of the Nittany Lions. “They’re tough, especially on their home court.”

After a successful nonconference season that included a nine-match win streak, the Cats have dropped their first two Big Ten contests and haven’t won a set in three matches. But this weekend could change that.

NU and the Scarlet Knights finished as the two worst teams in the Big Ten a season ago, with the Cats winning just three conference games and Rutgers winning none. After predictably slow starts to Big Ten play this season, one of the teams will leave Friday with a Big Ten victory.

Following its showdown with the Scarlet Knights, NU immediately draws the Nittany Lions (11-1, 1-1), who present a much more difficult challenge.

“They have a super high hitting percentage, so they’re very efficient,” senior outside hitter Symone Abbott said. “They don’t make errors. They have very aggressive servers, and they’re just a cultured team, they know how they play and they’re very comfortable with themselves.”

The Cats will need key contributions from its leaders to compete with Penn State. Abbott, who currently sits No. 2 in the Big Ten with 4.37 kills per set, has been one of the more consistent outside hitters in the conference this season. Senior middle blocker Gabrielle Hazen is sixth with a .404 kill percentage, while senior setter Taylor Tashima is fourth in the conference with 11.51 assists per set.

NU will also look to its tremendous freshman class for a fighting chance against Penn State. Davis said he expected the freshmen to carry the load.

“Our freshmen are doing a nice job. I’m not surprised by their contributions this year, and I think it was somewhat expected,” he said. “They’re doing a good job, their ceiling is really high and they’ll continue to get better as the season goes on.”

Freshman outside hitter Nia Robinson has been a solid complement to Abbott this season, racking up 3.55 kills per set, good for seventh in the Big Ten. Freshman libero Lexi Pitsas has battled sophomore Sarah Johnson for the starting job and is averaging 2.91 kills per set on the season. Freshman middle blocker Alana Walker has been a reliable option across from Hazen with a .313 kill percentage.

NU will have to contend with its opponents’ menacing attack, as the Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten with a .349 kill percentage. Penn State also allows the fewest service aces in the conference, while the Cats average the most aces per game.

Robinson said although the Cats might not have the raw talent to match the Nittany Lions, they can be successful if they work together.

“Individually, we’re all not the best players there are in volleyball, but together we’re just as strong as any other team,” she said.

Benjy Apelbaum contributed reporting.

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