VB Sweeps Northwestern, Falls to OSU in Conference Openers
The Boilers ran into an unexpected hurdle as they entered conference play last weekend: while their opener Wednesday against Northwestern went according to plan, the Ohio State side they faced Saturday looked much more like the team that began the year in the AVCA Top 25 and less like the team that dropped home matches to Missouri State and Western Kentucky. The Buckeyes dominated play, taking three sets from a Purdue team that had yet to drop a set at home. Even the set the Good Gals won was a 34-32 marathon affair, leaving those in attendance maybe more than a little glad there wouldn't be a fifth set in a gym that had, for the first time all year, exceeded its newly-found ability to provide cool air. (Never mind those of us who went to the football game first; no thanks to Fox, who can't be bothered to start sporting events on time. I had to bail late in the fourth just to move my car to the F lot and get into Holloway before the match started.)
#13 Purdue 3, #59 Northwestern 0 (25-18, 25-20, 25-18)
As is tradition, with conference play starting, Shondell went to his preferred lineup and maintained it throughout the weekend. Starters were Ashley Evans, Shavona Cuttino, Azariah Stahl, Carissa Damler, Blake Mohler, Danielle Cuttino, and Brooke Peters; Sherridan Atkinson and Jena Otec rotated in for Damler and Danielle Cuttino respectively, while Julianna Reisinger occasionally served for Mohler and sometimes would take a back-row spot when Peters wasn't holding it as libero.
The match wasn't quite as close as the scores might suggest: although there were 20 ties and 11 lead changes, most of those came early in each set, as the Boilers were never threatened late. The Wildcats could not manage more than a 6-6 tie in the first two sets, and while they did push Purdue in the third, after a 15-15 tie, the Boilers used a 10-3 run to end the match.
In set one, a 6-0 Purdue run turned that 6-6 tie into a 12-6 advantage; Northwestern closed to 12-9 and 13-11, but a Danielle Cuttino kill and two NU attack errors opened up the lead to 5, and the Boilers traded points until two Danielle kills around a Stahl kill gave Purdue a 25-18 win.
In set two, the Purdue runs were shorter, but equally effective: Northwestern actually led at 3-4, but a 3-0 Purdue run gave the Good Gals a lead they would not relinquish. They never led by more than five, but that was more than enough, although a late Wildcat run changed a 22-17 lead to 22-20; a Shondell timeout saw Purdue take the last three points of set two and a 2-0 advantage into the locker room.
Northwestern managed a solid half of set three, keeping the Boilers within two and trading runs through a 12-14 lead that sparked another Shondell timeout. That seemed to be all the visitors had, as two more Danielle kills and an Atkinson kill forced an NU timeout; an Evans service error tied it at 15-15, but Danielle and Stahl each added another kill, with an NU attack error making it 18-15 and burning the other NU timeout. After 19-15, an Otec service error sparked an 0-3 Wildcat run, but Purdue scored the last six of the match, finishing with two kills by Stahl and a kill by Mohler.
The Good Gals dominated the boxscore once again, outhitting the Wildcats .420 to .183, getting 35 digs to NU's 25, and outblocking them 5.0 to 1.0. Danielle Cuttino took kill honors with 16 at .345, while Atkinson led in hitting percentage at .625 with 11 kills; Stahl added 11 at .333. Evans had 40 of Purdue's 44 assists and added one of the two Purdue solo blocks (Stahl had the other), but was relatively quiet in the backcourt (2 digs) and was just 0/-1 from the service line. Stahl recorded both of Purdue's aces and was +2 on the day, with the Boilers reverting to form, just 2/-4 from the line. Peters was the only player on either side with double-digit digs (11), and the solo blocks were enough for Evans and Stahl to share block honors with 1.5 each.
Northwestern's attack was led by senior OH Symone Abbott, who posted team highs with 11 kills and a .286 attack percentage. MB Gabrielle Hazen, a senior from Columbia City, IN, was the other Wildcat in double digits (10 at .273). Senior setter Taylor Tashima had 29 of NU's 32 assists. Hazen and sophomore DS Sarah Johnson split Northwestern's 4 aces, with Hazen even at the line and Johnson recording a +1; the Wildcats were 4/-3 as a team. Abbott, Johnson and freshman libero Lexi Pitsas each had 5 digs; the lone Wildcat block was split between freshman MH Alana Walker and freshman OH Nia Robinson.
#13 Purdue 1, #37 Ohio State 3 (19-25, 22-25, 34-32, 23-25)
No lineup changes for Purdue here. Not sure if it was this match or the Northwestern match, but in one of them, for the third set, Shondell seemed to want to start Erin Williams at MB. A discussion with the down ref ensued, and for reasons unknown to us, the change was denied; Shondell left his starting lineup in place.
The numbers suggest that the match was relatively close - 35 ties and 13 lead changes, 28 and 11 in the last two sets alone - but the feeling was definitely one of DOOM. Perhaps it was the second half of football talking, perhaps it was the knowledge that this had happened before, but regardless, the Boilers seemed due for an off night, and this would certainly qualify as one.
Purdue managed consecutive points on just 4 occasions in set one, never more than two at a time. Ohio State didn't fare much better, but they did use an 0-5 run to convert a 9-8 Boiler lead into a 9-13 deficit that proved too much to overcome. The Buckeyes slowly increased their lead to six, 15-21, and then split the remaining points to wrap up set one 19-25 and take an 0-1 lead.
The Boilers started much better in set two, going up 7-3 and then 12-7; OSU chipped away, but couldn't get closer than 3, and when a Taylor Hughes service error gave Purdue a 19-15 lead, it looked like the Good Gals would go into the locker room even at 1-1. Instead, the visitors took the next five points, and Purdue never led after that, managing just a 20-20 tie. A Luisa Schirmer kill put set two out of reach, 22-25, and the Boilers found themselves in an unfamiliar 0-2 hole - their only other 0-2 start this season was in their 1-3 loss at Kansas.
It will be difficult to do justice to set three if you weren't there. Suffice it to say that the handful of new spectators who were unaware of how set point works (you stand at set points, but sit when it's tied or you're defending a set point) got plenty of opportunities to learn. A rare double hit by Evans gave OSU an 0-1 lead, but the Boilers fired back with 4 straight, punctuated by a Mohler ace. The Buckeyes cut the lead to 1, and after an exchange of points, ran off three straight to go up 6-7; neither side led by more than 1 until a Shavona Cuttino kill started a 6-0 Boiler run, burning both OSU timeouts. Purdue traded points after that through 20-15, then followed a Lauren Witte kill with a Stahl kill to lead 21-16 ... but they struggled to close the door, and OSU walked right through it, forcing a Purdue timeout at 22-20 and the other one at 24-23, as they held off set point #1.
An Ayanna Swan kill held off the second set point; Stahl put the Boilers up 25-24 for set point #3, but a Peters service error tied it at 25, and an Atkinson attack error gave OSU its first match point. Atkinson responded with a kill and an ace for set point #4; Swan killed that to tie at 27. Stahl put the Boilers up 28-27; Schirmer tied it at 28. Danielle Cuttino gave Purdue set point #6, but a Schirmer kill and an Ashley Wenz ace made it 29-30 OSU, match point #2. Danielle kill for 30-30; Madison Smeathers kill for 30-31 and OSU match point #3. Danielle kill, Schirmer attack error, 32-31 and set point #7. Otec service error, Atkinson kill, 33-32 and set point #8 ... which proved to be the magic number, as an Atkinson/Mohler block stopped a Swan attack and finally put Purdue on the board.
The 34-32 final was the longest set the Boilers had played since dropping set three 32-34 to then-#3 Minnesota ... ironically, the team leading that match 2-0 was the one who lost the set, although in that case, the Boilers finished with a match win, 3-2, taking set five 15-9. The last time the Boilers won a set 34-32 was in the 2014 Mortar Board Premier final, as they swept LSU 25-17, 34-32, 25-22. (I don't believe Purdue has played in a longer set since the NCAA went from 30-point sets to 25-point sets in 2008; the last one under those rules was a 33-35 loss in the 2007 Mortar Board Premier in a three-set sweep at the hands of Dayton.)
Purdue seemed momentarily energized by the thrilling comeback, but the glow did not last long, as a 7-4 Purdue lead turned into a 7-9 OSU lead in set four. Neither side led by more than three points, meaning that the match saw its first media timeout at 12-15. The Boilers scored four of the next five points, with a Shavona Cuttino kill tying it at 16 and drawing an OSU timeout; the Buckeyes went on a 1-4 run and burned a Purdue timeout, leading 17-20, but Purdue scored three straight to tie, using a coach's challenge to reverse a call and drawing a yellow card on the OSU bench, likely from saying one of those words you do not say to a ref. (We didn't get to hear why it was issued.) Unfortunately, the teams traded points through 23-24, and unlike the first three match points, the Buckeyes did not miss the fourth, using a Schirmer kill to end the set 23-25 and the match 1-3.
The boxscore generally favored Ohio State, with the Buckeyes winning the attack battle .336 to .212 and outblocking Purdue 13.0 to 7.0; the Boilers did stay cleaner at the service line (5/-1 to 5/-8) and recorded slightly more digs (54-51). Danielle Cuttino took team honors with 23 kills at .333, but the visitors did a fine job of limiting Purdue's other outside hitters, with both getting double-digit kills at well under .300 (Atkinson 13/.176, Stahl 11/.094), and OSU did an even better job on Mohler, holding her to just 4 kills at -.167. Evans had 44 of Purdue's 57 assists and was one of five Boilers to record an ace; Reisinger, Stahl and Mohler were 1/+1, Evans 1/even, and Atkinson 1/-1. Peters led the team with 14 digs, with Evans not far behind at 12 (adding 7 kills, not far from what would have been the first Purdue triple-double since her 43/10/10 effort against Kentucky last season). Mohler returned to her usual form with 2 solo blocks to lead all players and 2.5 total blocks to lead the team.
Senior OH Luisa Schirmer led all players with 25 kills at a sparkling .385; sophomore MB Madison Smeathers, from Bargersville, IN, added 16 at .419, and junior setter Taylor Hughes added 6 at .600; like Evans, she chased a triple-double, with 12 digs and a match-high 52 assists. Freshman libero Hannah Gruensfelder had a match-high 2 aces (+1), with three other Buckeyes recording an ace apiece, and also led all players with 15 digs. Hughes, Schirmer, and freshman MB Lauren Witte each had a solo block; Witte added five assists to lead all players with 3.5 total blocks.
The Northwestern match should have been an omen, as the Boilers were clearly the better side but not clearly playing like it; Ohio State found them lacking and made them pay for it, as time and again Purdue looked out of sync and could not find attack lanes. With no service specialist and a solid defense against them, the Good Gals just didn't have enough to get points when they needed them. As a result, their forecast has been downgraded, with road matches at Illinois and Ohio State moving to the L column, and the home match against Michigan State approaching coin-flip status at 54% (to be fair, the two new Ls are 47% and 45%).
BONUS CONTENT: Conference roundup
Only four teams escaped the weekend unscathed, and of note, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota were not among them, as the onetime 1-3 teams in the country all split. Penn State was swept by Nebraska at home (!), Minnesota was swept by Michigan State at home (!), and Wisconsin lost in five sets to the Spartans at home. (Heck of a road trip for MSU.) In addition to OSU and MSU, the other unbeatens are Nebraska (swept Rutgers away) and Illinois (road sweeps at Indiana and Northwestern).
There are also four winless teams, to no great surprise: Rutgers is the obvious one (#250 in Massey, a world behind 13th-best Indiana, who's #87), and they're joined by Michigan (road losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin), Northwestern, and Indiana (also swept at home by Maryland).
Purdue is currently seventh among conference teams, between #24 Illinois and #33 Michigan.
Indiana returns to the schedule for a rare home-and-home setup, playing Wednesday in Holloway and Saturday in Bloomington, the latter for the Monon Spike. The Boilers will attempt to add a P to the trophy for the tenth consecutive year, matching a 10-P streak from September 1978 through November 1985 (with the trophy being designated in 1981, all prior matches were added as links, including two Purdue wins in 1979 and 1980). Massey suggests this should not be a problem, expecting a 3-0 win in West Lafayette and a 3-1 win for the Spike. (Yes, that was the Ohio State prediction. No, Indiana isn't nearly that good.)