Aug. 24, 2004
EVANSTON, Ill. --
A pair of NCAA tournament appearances in the last two years have head coach Keylor Chan and the Wildcats hungry for more in 2004. Coming off an 18-15 season -- their best finish in six years -- the young but experienced Wildcats are primed for another NCAA run.
The 'Cats return several key pieces from last year's successful puzzle. Captains Drew Robertson and Christie Gardner are essential in providing leadership to a younger squad, as well as instilling a strong work ethic and winning mentality. Their ability to lead the Wildcats will have a bearing on how successful this team can be.
"We are focused on the overall potential of our program versus individual stars," says Chan, who is in his fifth year at NU. "This will be a change from previous years."
Northwestern welcomes six new faces to the team. Lindsay Anderson, Stephanie Alde, Brittney Aldridge, Vanessa Bezic, Courtnie Paulus and Cally Stolbach are all expected to contribute early and often and pick up right where the graduating seniors left off.
Without the spotlight on any one player, the 2004 season finds Northwestern focusing on creating the feeling of an overall team success through every player's contributions. This team's recent triumphs can be credited to a switch in the game plan. Chan has installed a more athletic, cleaner system that is "less half court and more fast-break" in order to exploit the athletic ability of his recruits. If history serves, the 'Cats expect to be competitive and earn their third straight trip to the postseason.
Four Wildcats are vying for a spot at middle blocker. As the only upperclassman at the middle blocker position, Leah Delcourt provides experience in the middle. Delcourt was second on the team in blocks last year, averaging 0.88 blocks per game.
"Leah has done a great job for us in years past," says Chan. "The team will look toward her for leadership this year."
Returning for her sophomore campaign is Julie Purcell. She has played middle before but will likely be moved outside. Purcell will fill the shoes of those who came before her as an offensive threat all over the court. In 2003, she tallied 23 kills and nine blocks.
"Julie is going to be very important to our program in an offensive capacity," says Chan. "As a phenomenal attacker, she is expected to make a huge impact."
Aldridge, part of the school's best recruiting class in history, arrives in time to provide a physical presence in the trenches. Standing at 6-foot-3, the prep All-America from Hampshire, Ill., should see court time as she develops into a dominant player.
"We are really excited about Brittney joining our program," says Chan. "She is big and physical, and she is a prototypical Big Ten blocker. Her size, coupled with her blocking mobility, will be an asset to our team."
Alde joins her fellow classmate in the middle but is more flexible and can play outside hitter as well. As a competitive high school player, Alde has proven that she has the determination needed to win. She will certainly challenge the others for a starting spot.
"Stephanie has a great jump and a lightning-fast arm," says Chan. "We are excited to have her competitive nature added to our team."
Behind the wheel of Northwestern's offense is Robertson. The senior is a fourth-year starter and her ability to lead this team will again be key in 2004. Robertson adds strength in her serve, defense and setting ability. Her average of 13.18 assists per game will prove the catalyst for this athletic offense.
"Drew has really matured well," says Chan. "She is a great volleyball talent and will play a pivotal role in determining our level of success."
After moving from outside hitter last year, Stephanie Jurivich will share time with Robertson as the Wildcats switch to a 6-2 offense from last year's 5-1 strategy. The change allows for an extra hitter on the court and will mix well with Northwestern's fast-paced play.
Gardner is another key element in NU's offense. she averaged 2.57 kills per game and contributed defensvely with 2.81 digs per game. With such all-around talent, Gardner will serve as a leader for her younger teammates.
"Christie has really demonstrated the skill and effort necessary to win at this level," says Chan. "We are really excited to see what she can do for us this year."
Joining the attackers is Anderson, an athletic outside hitter who has proven she can make big plays. Her exceptional versatility, coupled with her ball control, should prove a lethal combination against opposing teams.
"We expect Lindsay to step in and be a strong contender for a starting spot right away," says Chan. "She has a great feel for the game and has the ability to take over a match with both her front and backcourt skills."
One of the best athletes in the recruiting class of 2004 is Paulus. Showing outstanding potential in her first year of club volleyball, she has given Chan a lot to be excited about.
"Courtnie is one the best natural blockers I have ever seen," says Chan. "She is going to be a special player, and we will look for her to quickly become a go-to player on the left and right sides."
Entering her junior season is Lizzie Carlson. The two-year starter will maintain the order on the defensive front as she has done so well the past two years. Last season, Carlson notched 2.41 digs per game.
"Lizzie has great ball control," says Chan. "I expect her to retain her spot where she can continue to grow as a starter and bring great leadership to our team."
Lauren Greenwood will contribute as a sophomore this year. The Brentwood, Tenn., native, who tallied 31 digs and nine service aces last year, will add stability to a young backcourt with her precise
"Lauren does it all," says Chan. "I know she will provide great support for that backline this year."
Stolbach rounds out the backcourt with her ability to control the whole court. Her athleticism and passing will add another element to a team that has the goals set high.
"Cally will be a valuable asset of the back court," says Chan. "We look forward to seeing her make a smooth transition into college life and be productive from the get-go."
The Big Ten Conference
The Big Ten perennially serves as one of the most talented conferences in the nation. Often the top eight finishers in the conference will qualify for postseason bids. Penn State and Minnesota went all the way to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Championship last year and will prove a challenge again this year.
Northwestern is looking to improve on last year's seventh-place finish by stepping up in big games versus top-ranked opponents. In 2003, the squad took wins from Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which were ranked in the top 25 nationally.
The 2004 Schedule
After back-to-back NCAA tournament berths, NU cannot let up as another challenging schedule awaits the Wildcats this year.
Northwestern opens its season against Florida, last year's NCAA national runner-up and Chan's alma mater. The Wildcats also will build up for Big Ten action by facing perennial powerhouses in Long Beach State and Stanford.
In other nonconference action, the 'Cats will play for hometown pride as they take on area Division I rivals Loyola (Ill.), DePaul and UIC in the Chicago Challenge.