Volleyball: The Cats prepare for tough road matchups against No. 7 Minnesota, No. 6 Wisconsin

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Lexi Pitsas prepares to receive a serve. The junior libero is fifth in the Big Ten in digs per set.

Carlos Stinson-Maas, Reporter


Volleyball


With no wins against Big Ten teams, Northwestern is currently tied for last in the conference. Having one of the toughest schedules in the nation hasn’t helped. The Wildcats have faced four ranked opponents in their first six conference matches.

And the next two games won’t be any easier.

On Friday, NU (9-9, 0-6 Big Ten) visits No. 7 Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers (11-3, 5-1) have won eight straight matches against the Cats dating back to 2014.

The next day, NU will travel to Madison to take on No. 6 Wisconsin. The Badgers (10-4, 6-0) swept the Cats earlier this season on Oct. 9 before sweeping Minnesota four days later, giving them sole possession of first place in the conference. Wisconsin enters the weekend on a six-game win streak.

Coach Shane Davis said NU needs to motivate itself “from within” ahead of this weekend.

“They’re just excited about playing two teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Davis said. “We’ve proven that we can play with the top teams in the country — we just gotta figure out a way to win.”

The Cats have showed promise against top teams this year, taking late leads against then-No. 3 Nebraska and No. 7 Wisconsin. However, NU has still yet to win a set against a ranked opponent, and they’re 0-19 against top-ten squads since 2017.

Last Saturday, NU took on No. 20 Purdue, losing in straight sets. The Cats once again held a late lead in the first set, but like several other matches this season, fell apart down the stretch.

“It’s become a little bit of our story,” Davis said. “We’ve gotten a lot of sets against top ranked opponents up into that 18-point mark, and we seem to falter. We’ve been working in practice on pressure situations — put the score in that 18 range and see if we can overcome some battles.”

NU will have to overcome seemingly insurmountable battles over the next few days, as Wisconsin hasn’t lost against unranked opponents this year and Minnesota has only lost to one. The Golden Gophers are also undefeated at home, and the Badgers have lost just one set to an unranked team.

Individually, the Cats have had their own successes. Freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara leads the Big Ten in kills per set and ranks third in the conference in service aces per set. Coach Davis also praised junior libero Lexi Pitsas for her defensive prowess — she ranks fifth in the Big Ten in digs per set.

The Cats, however, are more focused on team success than individual accolades, Davis said.

“There’s a good team-first mentality,” Davis added. “It’s just embracing everybody, doesn’t matter your role, doesn’t matter what class you’re in. We’re a family. This is the biggest team I’ve had since I’ve been here, and it’s also the closest team I’ve had.”

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