“It literally came down to two points,” Northwestern head volleyball coach Keylor Chan said late Wednesday night after his team’s five-set loss to in-state rival Illinois. If you had told him before the match that his streaky team would be two points away from knocking off the No. 18 team in the country, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. But yet, there the Wildcats were, pushing the Illini to the limit in one of the more entertaining matches of the season so far.
Illinois started strong, racing out to a 9-3 lead thanks to six straight points. Northwestern battled back, tying the frame at 14 when sophomore Taylor Tashima and junior Maddie Slater connected for back-to-back points. But the Illini defense stood tall, forcing Northwestern to commit 11 errors in the first set alone. A block of a Symone Abbott attack handed Illinois the first set 25-18.
The second set looked like it would be more of the same: the visitors dominated early, scoring five straight to help themselves to an 8-2 lead. Then Illinois got sloppy, committing 10 errors in the frame, as Northwestern charged back to tie the game at 14. Illinois pushed their lead back up to 23-20, but Northwestern’s balanced hitting attack scored eight of the final 11 points to steal the set 28-26.
Northwestern entered the match with Illinois with a perfect 6-0 record in matches that last longer than three sets; all 10 of their losses had come in a sweep. Illinois dominated the outset of the first two frames, but in the third, neither team was able to pull away until the very end. Northwestern’s biggest lead came at 23-18 on one of Abbott’s 16 kills of the night, but the Illini scored the next two points, prompting Chan to use a timeout to slow the momentum. It seemed to work, as Tashima and Slater linked up twice again to give the ‘Cats a pivotal 25-21 win.
In the fourth, Illinois showed why they’re the eighteenth best team in the nation. After Northwestern went up 4-3, Illinois dominated, going on a 9-2 run to jump out to a 11-6 lead. Chan called a timeout to help stop the bleeding, but it didn’t help much: Illinois never led by fewer than six points from there. More Northwestern miscues helped the Illini go on a 5-2 run to close out the fourth set 25-16.
Illinois did their best to eliminate the ‘Cats’ unblemished record in five-set games early, jumping out to a 4-1 in the first-to-fifteen frame. The Wildcats then went on a 9-4 run to seize a 10-8 lead. Neither team was ready to roll over – Illinois scored three straight to retake the lead at 11-10, but then Northwestern scored three of their own to make it 13-11. After Illinois resiliently battled back to level the frame at 13, Chan used his second timeout to help his team catch their breath. Out of the break, an error by Sofia Lavin gave the visitors match point, but Tashima set up Lavin again to tie it up at 14. But after Michelle Strizak gave Illinois match point again, Abbott’s attack bounced off the top of the net and out of play, never contacting any Illinois players, and, somehow, the Illini had survived a five-set scare from the unranked Wildcats.
Despite what was possibly the most demoralizing loss of the campaign, Chan remained positive and showered praise on his resilient team.
“This time of year, losses are tough,” the veteran head coach said. “But I can’t be more proud of how our team played. The only thing we’re disappointed in is the result. The process was good, and I’ve got nothing but praise for our girls and we just want to go out there and continue to do that, and give ourselves a chance to get where we want to be.”
But amidst the loss, there was at least one positive memory to take away from Wednesday’s match following a 16 dig performance – Carks Niedospial has the second-most digs in Northwestern volleyball history. She needed only nine to seal the record, but her defensive match cemented her place in Northwestern history.
“Honestly, during the game, I didn’t even know that I hit it [the milestone],” Niedospial said. “I’ve just been so focused on having a great season and doing the best that I can for my team, but, hey, that’s awesome, I mean, I came here to make an impact on the program and I’m glad that I could do that.”
“She is such a great leader for this team,” said Tashima. “The moment I came last year she was welcoming me in. Everyone on the court wants to play for her, she’s busting her butt getting every single ball up. I trust her with my life. There’s a huge trust factor and that trust is very important on the court.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I love all the girls,” said Niedospial. “We all trust each other and we all are playing for each other, and it’s great to be a part of this team.”
Both teams have a few days off before heading south for the Champaign leg of the home-and-home series on Saturday.