After a successful non-conference slate, Northwestern volleyball (11-5, 1-3 B1G) struggled in their first week in the mighty Big Ten. The Wildcats went 1-3, losing to No. 13 Purdue, Illinois and No. 3 Penn State but defeating Rutgers, all by a score of 3-0.
In the Purdue match on September 20, Northwestern kept the first set close despite being outhit .414 to .132 until the Boilermakers (13-2, 3-1 B1G) pulled away to win 25-18. In the second set, the ‘Cats committed only four errors but lost 25-20. Purdue went on to win the third set, 25-18. A positive takeaway from the match: senior outside hitter Symone Abbott led the team with 11 kills and moved into sole possession of 9th place all-time in NU history.
In the team’s first home game at Evanston Township High School, where it will play until construction on Welsh-Ryan Arena is complete in Fall 2018, Northwestern lost in straight sets to Illinois (11-3, 2-1 B1G). After the Wildcats took a 15-12 lead in the first set thanks to three service aces from Abbott, the Fighting Illini roared back to win the set, 25-23, and never looked back, winning the next 2 sets by scores of 25-19 and 25-13 respectively. Overall, the Wildcats’ performance was stronger than their previous match, as they recorded 37 assists (all courtesy of senior Taylor Tashima) to Illinois’ 34 and tied the Fighting Illini with 7 blocks, 5 aces and 37 kills. However, what undid the ‘Cats was their .168 hitting percentage compared to Illinois’ .405 mark. With 13 kills in another strong performance, Abbott inched up to 8th all-time.
In their lone win of the week, Northwestern dominated the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-10, 0-3 B1G). The first set was the closest one, featuring multiple lead changes, but NU pulled away in large part due to 5 blocks and a .455 hitting percentage from Abbott to win 25-19. After that, the Wildcats never looked back, winning the second set 25-13 and the final set 25-12. The ‘Cats led in every major statistical category, including eight aces to Rutgers’ three, and their .485 hitting percentage is the fifth-best mark in NU history. Northwestern has yet to lose in four meetings against Rutgers since they “joined” the Big Ten.
The Wildcats could not translate their success from Friday’s win to Saturday’s road matchup against one of the nation’s top teams, the Penn State Nittany Lions (13-1, 3-1 B1G). The squad had a legitimate chance to take the first set from the Nittany Lions: they led 22-20 and then were tied at 24 before surrendering the final two points. After that, the firepower of Penn State was too much to handle as the Wildcats could only muster 14 points apiece in the final two sets. Taylor Tashima moved up in the Northwestern record books to 4th all-time in assists with a 31-assist performance, and Abbott again led the team with 12 kills.
Looking forward, Northwestern must win more first sets and consistently record hitting percentages above .200 if they want to win more conference matches. After almost a week off, the Wildcats host a very winnable opponent in the Indiana Hoosiers (11-5, 0-4 B1G) on Friday before a rematch against Purdue on Sunday.