The Boilermakers made the most of their games in Holloway Gymnasium this weekend, winning the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament to advance to the NCAA Regionals.
No. 14 Purdue (24-7, 14-6 Big Ten) defeated Wright State (24-6, 13-3 Horizon League) in three sets on Friday and followed through with a 3-1 victory over No. 16 Marquette on Saturday.
The weekend marks the Boilermakers’ first advancement to the Sweet 16 in six years.
“That’s always something that we’ve continually strived for, and we’ve fallen short of that the past few years, so this group decided that that wasn’t gonna happen again and that we were going to the Sweet 16,” fifth-year middle blocker Blake Mohler said.
The Boilers played fast from the get-go against Wright State, winning the first set 25-9. The Raiders presented more of a challenge in the second, but the momentum the Boilermakers built was ultimately too much for them, and Wright State went down in three sets.
“I think starting off a match strong is something that we always try and do,” Mohler said. “It’s definitely something that we key in on when we’re in our huddle before the game starts.”
After a commanding win in the first round, the Boilermakers had less than 24 hours to prepare for their next match against the Marquette. Head coach Dave Shondell did not allow the short turnaround to diminish any of the team’s energy going into the next match.
“I think that great teams that have worked all year for a common goal are going to find a way to be prepared and play their best,” he said.
The Boilers’ momentum only carried them so far, though, and they lost the first set to the Golden Eagles.
“It’s always nice to get off to a great start, but there’s always gonna be nights where that just doesn’t happen,” Shondell said. “First set, we didn’t serve and pass in the fashion that we have been.”
The team’s performance changed midway through the second set.
“I thought it changed when (sophomore middle blocker) Jael Johnson came into the game. She gave us a tremendous, solid effort. She’s an emotional leader on our team, and I thought that made a big difference,” Shondell said.
Along with Johnson’s leadership, the Boilermakers were able to make the changes necessary to steal the next three sets from the Eagles.
“Some teams can make adjustments, and some teams can’t,” Shondell said. “And I want them to make them on their own. I encourage that.”
Marquette was ranked above Purdue for the entirety of the regular season, and the Boilermakers were predicted to lose to the Golden Eagles by a lot, Shondell said.
“We had a talk with our team just saying (that) if we play how we (usually) play, we’ll be able to handle business,” junior outside hitter Caitlyn Newton said.
Newton, who had her 16th straight game with 10 or more kills this weekend, has led the Boilermakers on an eight-match winning streak.
“We’ve got a team that is starting to believe in themselves,” Shondell said. “Newton’s the epitome of that. ... Newton in the middle of the season, there wasn’t anybody who thought she was gonna make anything in the Big Ten. Then all of a sudden, she just kept hanging in there and believing in herself and building confidence, and now I think she’s one of the top five or six players in the Big Ten, the way she’s playing.”
Newton brought that confidence into the weekend in stride, recording 13 kills against Wright State and 23 against Marquette.
Saturday’s match included the Boilers’ 50th serving ace of the season. The last time a Purdue team recorded 50 or more serving aces in a season was 1993.
“No doubt the serving on our team has put us in a position to be a better defensive team, taking a team out of system,” Shondell said after the Marquette game. “Tonight they passed most of their balls outside the 10-foot line. It limits what they can do as an offense. That improves your defense because it narrows down what you have to be ready for.”
The team’s serving has been a strong point for it all season, highlighted by a huge 15-serve streak from sophomore outside hitter Grace Cleveland earlier in the season as well as strong serving performances from Cleveland and junior defensive specialist Jena Otec this weekend.
The Boilermakers will go on to play the No. 1 Baylor Bears in the Sweet 16.
“I’ve watched Baylor play,” Shondell said. “They have an outside hitter that is probably the very best in the country. She’s something special.”