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Volleyball: Wildcats drop a pair to begin Big Ten play

First year phenom Temi Thomas-Ailara and Northwestern fell at home to both Iowa and #2 Nebraska last weekend.

Northwestern Volleyball

NU volleyball (9-5, 0-2) did not exactly have the start to the season they envisioned on Friday and Saturday at Welsh-Ryan. The Wildcats fell in four sets to an Iowa team whose head coach just had the interim tag removed and that had their best hitter miss the trip, before a much more reasonable hard-fought three-set loss to the defending national runner-up Cornhuskers.

Before the weekend started, Northwestern received some good news: though they were still missing opposite hitter Danyelle Williams, libero Lexi Pitsas returned from injury to take her place in the starting lineup. But whether it was rust, over-excitement, or something else entirely, the ‘Cats sleepwalked through the first set, hitting at a shockingly low clip of -.034.

Temi Thomas-Ailara’s three straight aces (the third time she has achieved that all season) kept NU in the set for a while, but Iowa’s run down the stretch handed them a 25-17 victory. The Wildcats bounced back, though, winning plenty of clutch points to claim a 25-23 second set win.

But in a tight final two sets, junior setter Brie Orr and veteran libero Halle Johnston led the way for the Hawkeyes, who won enough crucial points to pull out 25-23 and 25-22 set wins and take the match.

Orr finished with 17 digs to go with 37 assists, while Johnston had a near double-double as well with 11 digs and nine assists. Sophomore Courtney Buzzerio, who came into the program as a setter despite standing 6’5”, keyed the way offensively in her new primary role as an outside hitter. She had 15 kills, three aces, and five blocks, and added five more assists for good measure.

For Northwestern, Thomas-Ailara led the way with 15 kills and five aces. Nia Robinson and first year middle Desiree Becker each added 10 kills, with the later piling on four blocks as well. Setter Payton Chang had 35 assists before she was removed, questionably, by head coach Shane Davis late in the fourth set for Britt Bommer. Pitsas led the team defensively with 12 digs.

Against a Nebraska team that is consistently one of the best in the country, the ‘Cats didn’t show any fear, jumping out to an early 11-3 lead behind Thomas-Ailara and Pitsas. But quickly, the talent and experience of the Cornhuskers caught up with them. UNL came back to take the first set 25-21, before continuing their momentum for a 25-17 second-set victory.

It looked over from there, but NU battled throughout the third set. Eventually, though, after defending four set points, Nebraska finally took the set and the match at 30-28. Though the ‘Cats couldn’t take a set, they way they played was obviously heartening, especially after the disappointing loss the night before against a beatable team in the Hawkeyes.

Thomas-Ailara finished with an impressive 16 kills despite being a focus of the defense of the second-ranked Huskers, adding seven digs as well. Both Robinson and Alana Walker managed to find nine kills of their own. Chang had 29 assists, playing the full three sets this time. As a team, though, NU had just two blocks and 34 digs for the match. Meanwhile, Nebraska hit .316 as a group, and had three players in double digits in terms of kills.

Northwestern travels east this weekend, taking a tour of Indiana. On Friday, they will head to West Lafayette to take on the #17 Purdue Boilermakers, before heading to Bloomington the next day for a showdown with the Hoosiers.