VB Splits Conference Openers, Now 12-1 Overall
In a weekend full of football surprises, Belin Court held none - #3 Illinois proved too much for a young Boiler squad, although the Good Gals put up fine resistance and even took a set, and Northwestern was the reverse, pushing the Boilers hard and stealing a set but ultimately losing in four.
Such is life in the toughest conference in volleyball; there is exactly one week on the schedule where Purdue is favored in both matches (hosting Maryland and Ohio State on October 19 and 20), and with two weeks predicted to be winless (the Michigan/Michigan State road trip next week and the killer Wisconsin/Minnesota swing November 9 and 10), it’s easy to see how Purdue can be 19th in the country and 7th in the conference … as we’ll see later, several middle-of-the-pack teams are working on their NCAA resumes already.
Starters and main subs only against Illinois; Jael Johnson started the first three sets against Northwestern but gave way to Shavona Cuttino in the fourth, and no one else saw any action. Both Marissa Hornung and Jena Otec rotated in early on occasion to give the Boilers a better return lineup, which makes their hitting practice even more understandable (if you’re putting someone in the front row, they need to be able to hit, right?). I believe they ran a play for Otec up front as well; Hornung had at least one back-row play.
#14 Purdue 1, #3 Illinois 3 (19-25, 25-23, 23-25, 24-26)
Set one gave a good indication of how the match would go: the Boilers took the opening point, then fell behind 1-3 on an Ashlyn Fleming kill, a Grace Cleveland attack error and a block of Sherridan Atkinson by Ali Bastianelli and Jacqueline Quade, then took the lead back on a Cuttino kill and back-to-back attack errors by Quade. Illinois got a 1-3 run to lead 5-6, then after a point had to be replayed (see, even college volleyball does that sometimes), Purdue ran off four straight to lead 9-6, eventually getting to 11-7 before four straight Illini points tied it at 11. The visitors retook the lead at 12-13, then traded points through 15-16 before tacking on three more and drawing a Purdue timeout to lead 15-19; Atkinson made it 16-19, but a kill and an ace from Bastianelli made it 16-21 and burned the Boilers’ other timeout. The Good Gals drew within three, 18-21, but an 0-3 run put the Illini on the doorstep, and after a Fleming attack error, Beth Prince put down set point, and the favored visitors led 0-1.
The second set came down to the wire, but it sure didn’t start off that way - Purdue used three Atkinson kills and a Blake Mohler kill to go up 4-0, then at 4-2, two more Mohler kills (one thanks to a review that overturned an out call) and a solo Mohler block of Megan Cooney made it 7-2; after Bastianelli stopped that run, a Hayley Bush kill and two more from Mohler made it 10-3, and Chris Tamas, perhaps remembering the sweep the Boilers administered to Illinois in Huff Hall last season, called his first timeout of the match. The Illini promptly went on a 1-5 run to close the gap to two; the sides would alternate points until Purdue scored on their serve to lead 16-12. Once again, Illinois came back, cutting the lead to one on two Cleveland attack errors and a Bastianelli kill; after trading points two more times, Quade capped the comeback with a kill to make it 18-18 … but the Boilers got three much needed points, one each from Cuttino, Atkinson and Caitlyn Newton, and 21-18 looked like a safe lead. It turned out to be, as Illinois drew within one at 21-20, but an Atkinson kill and a Beth Prince attack error forced their last timeout at 23-20. They would close to 24-23 on a Morgan O’Brien ace, burning a Purdue timeout, but Atkinson put away a set from Bush to level the match, 1-1.
The Boilers came out after the break on fire, running out to a 5-1 lead, then opening it up to 7-2 and 9-3, and it looked like they might be on the way to a 2-1 lead in the match, but Bastianelli dropped two more aces on Purdue as part of an 0-4 run, and despite a Purdue timeout at 10-9, a 1-4 run made it 11-11. The sides traded points through 13-12, when an 0-5 run burned Purdue’s final timeout and put Illinois ahead 13-17. After an Atkinson kill, three more Illini points made it 14-20, but the Good Gals weren’t done, as three straight Mohler kills cut the lead in half and drew an Illinois timeout. Bush and Mohler blocked Prince, and then Bush followed with a kill to cut the lead to one; Bastianelli held off the Boilers momentarily at 19-21, but her service error brought in Julianna Reisinger, and after a Quade attack error tied it, Reisinger served an ace to put the Good Gals in front, 22-21. Illinois used their final timeout, and as elite teams are wont to do, they responded: three straight kills from Prince gave Illinois set point. Atkinson fought off #1, but Prince scored on #2, and Illinois had a hard-fought 23-25 victory.
Set four was different at first - the first time either team led by more than a point was at 8-6, on a Prince attack error that was challenged and ruled inconclusive. Like the last two, Purdue caught fire again, scoring five straight to lead 13-7 and draw a timeout, then adding a 2-1 run for a 15-8 lead. Since you know the final score, you know the Illini had to rally, and they did, slowly at first: Purdue’s first timeout came at 17-13. Again, the teams would trade points, until an 0-5 Illinois run burned the Boilers’ remaining timeout and tied the set at 20; it did draw a Taylor Kuper service error, but a Cooney kill tied it at 21. Back-to-back kills by Cleveland, one on a Bush set and one on an overpass, put the Good Gals up two; Illinois responded with a Cooney kill after a great pancake that was challenged and also found to be inconclusive (sorry, I don’t remember who did it and PBP doesn’t say). A Quade kill tied it at 23, and a Bastianelli/Jordyn Poulter block of Cleveland gave Illinois match point #1. Atkinson and Mohler blocked Quade for 24-24, but Bastianelli earned match point #2 with a kill, and once again, Prince would score the deciding point, giving the visitors set four and the match.
The box score was fairly even despite Illinois’ edge in points; the Boilers actually had an attack edge, .221 to .210, despite being short in kills (51-63); Illinois also had an edge at the service line, 12/+3 to Purdue’s 3/-1/-.011. Purdue did lead in blocks (12-7) and digs (67-60).
Once again, Purdue’s big two had a great day on the attack, with Atkinson leading all players in kills (21) and outhitting all Illinois players at .333; she was just third-best on her own team, as Mohler added 11 kills at .400 and Bush had 3 at .429. Bush added 40 of Purdue’s 46 assists and just missed another double-double with 9 digs (Brooke Peters led all players with 21). Reisinger (2/even) had 2 of Purdue’s 3 aces, with Otec (1/+1/.053) adding the other. Mohler’s two solo blocks doubled Illinois’ total, and her 5.0 total once again led everybody.
On the other side of the court, redshirt junior OH Beth Prince led the Illini with 19 kills at .279; three teammates joined her in double figures, with sophomore OH/OPP Megan Cooney (12 at .240) just ahead of junior Jacqueline Quade (11 at .065) and senior MB Ali Bastianelli (11 at .267). Bastianelli led the conference last year with 1.60 blocks per set; she was a little off that pace Friday but still led Illinois with 3.0 total blocks, with junior MB Ashlyn Fleming posting the only Illini solo block. Senior setter Jordyn Poulter had a match-high 52 assists and added 1 (-1) of Illinois’ 12 aces; Bastianelli (5/+4), Quade (4/+1), sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien (1/even) and freshman DS Taylor Kuper (1/-1) had the others, with O’Brien (20) and Kuper (10) the two Illini with double-figure digs.
#14 Purdue 3, #68 Northwestern 1 (22-25, 25-13, 25-22, 25-19)
For whatever reason, Saturday’s match didn’t start out well at all for the Boilers: they dropped the first three points, then gave up a 1-5 run around a Purdue timeout to trail 1-8 before those of us who were still basking in the glow of the rout of Boston College had really settled in. It would get worse - after an Atkinson kill stopped that run, Northwestern ran off three more points to lead 2-11 - before Purdue seemed to find their rhythm, getting three more to answer. However, they never really cut into the lead, and the Wildcats ended up leading 13-20, drawing Purdue’s other timeout. Finally, the Good Gals were able to make some headway, with three straight Newton kills getting a Northwestern timeout, and a Johnson kill cutting the lead to 17-20. The Boilers would close within two at 20-22 on an Atkinson/Johnson block of Hanna Lesiak, and again at 22-24 on a Peters ace, but Danyelle Williams put the next point down, and Purdue found themselves on the short end of a 22-25 score.
Fears of a second consecutive loss were put to rest almost immediately in set two, as a Lesiak attack error gave the Boilers a 1-0 lead, and Peters responded with three straight aces to make it 4-0. I don’t ever recall seeing three straight - I’m sure it’s happened at some point but I can’t easily tell when - but if there was ever a time when Purdue could use them, that was it. Northwestern would call a timeout at 10-5, and again at 13-6 following a 3-0 run by the Good Gals, but as Purdue did in the first set, the Wildcats had dug too deep a hole to mount a comeback in the second, and the Boilers used runs of 3-0 and 5-0 to all but put the set away at 24-11. A kill from Olivia Viscuso and an ace by Britt Bommer delayed the inevitable, but Atkinson got the next point, and the Boilers were even in the match after an easy 25-13 win.
One team came out after the break on fire, but it wasn’t the hosts; Northwestern took advantage of two early Purdue service errors to lead 2-6. Fortunately, the Boilers didn’t dig any deeper, using a 4-1 run to get within striking distance at 6-7. The Wildcats came back with a 1-3 run of their own to lead 7-10, but four straight Purdue points put the Good Gals up 11-10, and after trading points, kills from Atkinson and Mohler made it 14-12, timeout Northwestern; a Mohler kill would make it 15-12, and Purdue eventually led 17-13, trading points through 20-16, but there would be no blowout win in set three. In fact, the win itself was in question, as an 0-5 run around a Purdue timeout put the Cats up 20-21. An Atkinson kill and a Williams attack error made it 22-21 Purdue, burning Northwestern’s other timeout, but Lesiak responded with a kill of her own for 22-22. That would be their last point, as three straight attack errors from Lesiak gave Purdue a 25-22 win and a 2-1 lead in the match.
Set four looked to be more of the same, as Purdue led early but never by more than two, and an 0-4 Northwestern run flipped the lead, putting the visitors up 8-10. At 9-12, a Boiler timeout was followed by a 3-0 run; Northwestern got two straight to lead 12-14, and they led as late as 15-16, when Purdue got three more points around a Wildcat timeout to lead 18-16. Ella Grbac’s kill cut the lead in half, but a Grbac attack error and an Atkinson/Cuttino block of her put the Boilers up 20-17, and after another Grbac kill, Purdue scored four in a row to earn match point. Grbac would get one final kill, but a solo Cleveland block of Williams would be the final point, giving Purdue a hard-earned 25-19 set win and 3-1 match win.
Northwestern ended up with a 55-59 advantage in digs, as they seemed eerily like other recent opponents in their ability to return seemingly every kill attempt, but the Boilers outhit them easily (.281 to .148) despite having just a 57-50 advantage in kills. The Good Gals also led in assists (53-47) and blocks (11-6), and had a reasonable advantage in aces (7/even to 3/-1).
Atkinson once again led the Purdue attack, with a match-high 23 kills at .380, but her attack percentage was dwarfed by Newton, who had a career-high 16 kills at a whopping .667, easily besting her previous high of 12 (set last year against Minnesota, tied this year against Bowling Green). Bush had a match-high 46 assists and added 8 digs, with Peters (20) and Hornung (11) the usual leaders in the latter category. Peters’ string of aces contributed to her 4/+3/.143 day, just shy of the 4/+3/.176 she had against Tulsa; Atkinson (2/-1/-.067) and Reisinger (1/even) had the other Boiler aces. Atkinson and Cleveland each had a solo block, with Cleveland (3.0) beating out Atkinson (2.5) and Mohler (2.0) for match honors in total blocks.
Northwestern was led by freshman OH/OPP Ella Grbac (yep, she’s Elvis’ son), who posted 15 kills but hit just .143; sophomore OPP Danyelle Williams was in a similar boat with 14 kills at .226. Sophomore setter Britt Bommer had 44 of Northwestern’s assists, and had one of the Wildcats’ three aces at +1; junior MB Olivia Viscuso (+1) and sophomore DS* Lexi Pitsas (even) had the others. Viscuso led the Wildcats with 2.0 total blocks, while freshman libero Michelle Lee (16) and junior DS* Sarah Johnson (14) led the team in digs.
*Like Purdue, Northwestern signs a lot of liberos to play DS; unlike Purdue, Northwestern lists all of them as liberos. You can’t play more than one libero per set barring injury, so I use the position they played above; normally, like for OH and OPP, I list how they are listed on the roster.
Illinois sure looked like their #3 ranking, although there were stretches of play where I could see why Massey’s system doesn’t believe in them yet (they are predicted to fall at home 1-3 to Nebraska and 2-3 to Wisconsin despite being rated higher than both) - against Purdue, that didn’t cost them more than a set, but against an elite team, that could be the difference between a four- or five-set win and a loss.
Northwestern was a hard-luck 14-18 last season; they’re likely headed the same direction this year. In another conference, they might well be NCAA tournament material, but there are simply too many tournament-caliber teams in the Big Tenteen to give the Wildcats enough space to grow.
The big surprise last week was Penn State being swept by Minnesota; with Michigan State and Michigan up next, PSU could well be 1-3. Also note the conference’s odd decision to break up traveling partners; instead of having Maryland and Rutger be a road trip, schools are now traveling across the footprint and back within a couple of days. This week, Purdue, Minnesota, and Ohio State have a bit of travel ahead of them; IU only has to go to Columbus and back.
The one-match trip means Purdue is on the road tonight to face Maryland in a match that Massey has as a 3-2 Boiler win; they’ll return home to face a tough Wisconsin squad that looks to hang a 1-3 loss like Illinois did.
Listen for free online or on WSHY 104.3 FM and follow the home match on Purdue’s stat tracker. This is the last week for some time in which both matches will be behind a paywall, as BTN will cover Purdue-Michigan and Maryland-Purdue (the match in Holloway, not tonight’s match) while ESPNU has picked up Penn State-Purdue.
Photos courtesy of Purdue Athletics, taken by Charles Jischke and David Wegiel