In the midst of a three-game losing streak, the toughest schedule in NCAA volleyball continued Sunday afternoon for Northwestern, who hosted No. 17 Purdue. The home team recorded one convincing set win, but in the end, the Boilermakers (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten), simply overpowered the Wildcats (13-14, 5-11 Big Ten) in four sets, darkening Northwestern’s already bleak hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Purdue started strong, scoring the first three points en route to opening a 12-7 lead. But Northwestern bounced back, taking the next five points to tie it up at 12 apiece. Later, with the frame tied at 18, Purdue pulled away for good. The Boilermakers went on a 4-1 run to lead 22-19, prompting Northwestern head coach Keylor Chan to call a time out, but it didn’t help much: Purdue scored three of the final five points and won the first set 25-21.
Purdue picked up where it left off in the second frame, jumping out to a 4-2 lead. But then Northwestern got it going, tallying five straight to take the lead at 7-4, their biggest lead up to that point. But the visitors retaliated, fighting back to even the frame at 12 before scoring five straight to take a 17-12 lead. Northwestern stuck around, scoring the next four to pull to within one at 17-16, but Purdue took control from there. Led, as usual, by dominant hitter Annie Drews, the Boilermakers took eight of the final 11 points to snag set two 25-19.
Finding themselves down two sets to none against a ranked team for the fourth time in their last seven matches, the Wildcats came out firing in the third set, jumping out to a quick 5-2 lead. Northwestern allowed Purdue to creep back into the period by committing too many errors, but after Purdue levelled the score at 8, the Northwestern attack became lethal. The ‘Cats scored five straight to open a 13-8 lead, and led by as many as six before Purdue pulled within three at 18-15. Sensing the danger, the ‘Cats ferociously finished the frame on a 7-2 run, winning set three 25-17.
Before the pair of defeats last week against Illinois and the loss earlier this week to Minnesota, Northwestern had been undefeated in matches lasting longer than three sets. But they couldn’t find a way to snap their losing streak against Purdue. Purdue had dropped a set to Maryland and two to Iowa, both teams lower in the Big Ten standings than Northwestern, before corralling themselves and pulling out wins against inferior teams. And the Boilermakers did just that on Sunday in Evanston as well.
It’s difficult to win any game when you find yourself trailing the entire time, but that’s the situation the Wildcats found themselves in in set four. Purdue opened up a 7-3 lead, but the Wildcats clawed their way back to make it a one-point deficit at 11-10. But they never got closer. The visitors put together an 8-3 run, forcing coach Chan to use his second timeout to stop the bleeding. But the Boilermakers were unfazed. Purdue stayed ahead by at least four the rest of the way, and Danielle Cuttino put an end to a lengthy rally on match point to send the Boilermakers home to West Lafayette with a 25-19 win in set four and a 3-1 victory overall.
It was another disappointing overall match for Northwestern, but the Wildcats really stuck it to one of the best teams in the nation in set three. After Drews, who occupies second place in the conference in kills per set, totaled 14 slams and only three errors in the first two frames, the Wildcats limited her to only two kills and four errors in set three. Symone Abbott tallied five kills of her own in that frame to help the cause, but the Wildcats’ defense of one of the most potent hitters in the Big Ten was really what allowed them to win the set.
Senior defensive specialist Abbie Kraus was an integral part of that set win, as well. One of the conference’s leading servers with 30 aces and 0.33 aces per set, Kraus added two aces in the third set and four in the match, earning her the praise of her coach.
“Abbie’s one of the best servers in the conference, maybe even the nation,” Chan said. “To have her on the bench and know that she’s going to come in and give your team positive physical, mental and emotional execution, it’s a huge push for us. I’m really proud of how Abbie did tonight.”
Northwestern's schedule actually gets a little easier in the final four games. Northwestern has defeated all of the opponents left on the schedule, but one of the remaining foes is Penn State, which is not a guaranteed win by any stretch. Last year, no team that made the NCAA Tournament had a record of worse than .500, and Northwestern must win at least three of the final four matches to clinch a winning record and keep their horribly slim hopes of playing postseason volleyball alive.
“We have the hardest schedule in the nation, and we’re right there. We just haven’t pushed through to win,” said Chan. “And when we do, and I say 'when,' this group has a chance to be special.”