First to Five: Takeaways from Northwestern’s First Big Ten Weekend

By Mila Jasper

The Big Ten is the best volleyball conference in the nation, and this year, WNUR is kicking its coverage of the league up a notch. Or two. 

My name is Mila Jasper, and I am your new Big Ten women’s volleyball columnist. I’m here to talk about one of the most exciting – and fastest growing – sports in the world. 

We’re calling this column “First to Five” after one of my personal favorite refrains in volleyball. “First to five” encourages the team to think of the entire set as a series of mini games to five. Thus, you win all the games to five, you win the set. In this column, I will work to break down matches with the simplicity of the “First to Five” mentality. 

This week was the first week of Big Ten conference play. I sat courtside on Saturday at Welsh Ryan to watch the ‘Cats take on the now second-ranked team in the nation, Nebraska, and I need to talk about it. 

Here’s what happened: Northwestern jumped out to an 11-3 lead in the first set, carried by the confident swings and smart shots of Temi Thomas-Ailara, Northwestern’s resident freshman phenom. She was backed up by strong serve receive from Lexi Pitsas, who recently won the competition for the libero jersey. 

Smart serving all around and solid set distribution from Stanford graduate transfer Payton Chang sealed the deal on the best start for which the ‘Cats could have hoped. Northwestern was outplaying Nebraska. It was strange, but exciting. 

For their part, the Cornhuskers’ passing has been suffering since their big loss at home to Stanford in a rematch of last year’s national championship. Their serve receive woes continued against Illinois and hamstrung them early in Evanston. The number of times sophomore setter Nicklin Hames was forced to draw the call on too-tight passes is too high to be acceptable. 

Yet no matter how sloppy the play from Big Red was, an eight point lead is a huge deal for Northwestern – it wasn’t a gimme. Particularly after Friday night’s loss to Iowa. Yes, we have to talk about that one: it’s why this strong showing against a top tier team matters. 

Northwestern had the opportunity to prove that they can win in conference against a solid but beatable team on Friday night. But they missed that with a lackluster effort against the Hawkeyes (17-25, 25-23, 23-25, 22-25).

So on Saturday, they were playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. They wanted to prove that they could compete. 

Nebraska showed up for a different match. The team looked ragged after five long sets in Champaign the night before. The goal in Welsh Ryan looked like get in, work through it, get out. 

And in the end Nebraska got just that. With some gutsy play by junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and junior outside Lexi Sun, the match went the way of the Cornhuskers, three sets to none (21-25, 17-25, 28-30). Northwestern proved they could compete, but only to a point. 

The ‘Cats may have been outplaying Big Red, but Nebraska out-gamed the home team. You can be the underdog all you want, but when it comes to winning, you have to act like you’ve been there before. 

That’s a favorite phrase of one of my old coaches. “Acting like you’ve been there before” means not squandering eight point leads, regardless of the rank of your opponent. It means winning the game to two at the end of the third set to avoid the sweep (Northwestern had set point at 24-23, 25-24, 26-25 and 27-26), regardless of who is on the other side of the net. 

It also means winning the matches that are 50-50, where you and your opponent are closely matched in skill, matches that are gritty one-by-one climbs up the rankings ladder. 

You do not get to the top and stay at the top by suddenly beating Nebraska. That’s cool, but it doesn’t last. It’s glamorous, but ultimately meaningless. You get to the top by first beating the middle of the pack teams. You get there by beating the Iowas of the conference. 

If Northwestern can play as well as they did against Nebraska, the match the night before should have gone differently. That’s a mentality issue. If the ‘Cats can fix it, they’ll be able to take the skill they have and run with it – hopefully straight to Purdue and Indiana, their next two matches.

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