Last season, Northwestern volleyball finished with a record of 16-16 (6-14 in B1G). Thanks to the stacked nature of the conference though, even that record, a culmination of three years of steady improvement under head coach Shane Davis, put Northwestern within just a marquee win or two of the NCAA Tournament.
With literally every single member of that team returning to take part in the 2019 season, it certainly looks like this could be the year that the Wildcats get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010.
Along with their 17 returners, Davis and NU have added a four-player first year class alongside a graduate transfer setter from two-time national champion (in the time that she played for the Cardinal) Stanford. Payton Chang becomes both the most senior player on the team and one of only three setters: she will battle junior Britt Bommer and sophomore Kiara McNulty, each of whom had considerable struggles (along with some bright spots) at the position in 2018, for playing time.
Local newcomer Charlotte Cronister, who attended Latin High School in Chicago, will slot in as one of six liberos that the ‘Cats currently roster. Of that large group, true sophomore Michelle Lee sees the lion’s share of the playing time. The Naperville native led the team by a significant margin by amassing 379 digs last season, fellow libero and senior Sarah Johnson coming in second with just 229 in only 18 fewer sets.
Offensively, three Wildcats stood out. Outside hitters Nia Robinson and Abryanna Cannon reached 394 and 243 kills on the 2018 season respectively, while middle hitter Alana Walker chipped in with an additional 229, and outside/opposite hitter Ella Grbac added 210 more. No other player tallied more kills than the 109 of Olivia Viscuso, who is listed as a middle blocker.
Walker and Robinson are both juniors, with the former one of two Wildcats who hail from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, while Grbac and Cannon are each entering their second year with the program. The only first year entering an outside hitter is Temi Thomas-Ailara.
The final two first years, Olivia Haskins and Desiree Becker, were each recruited to Evanston as middle blockers. Walker was the only Wildcat to crack 100 in blocks last year, tallying 125 in total. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Viscuso, a senior, finished second with 80.
With plenty of highly-recruited returning talent at his disposal, Davis looks ready to take the next step.
The coach has already won two national championships for Loyola-Chicago in men’s volleyball (Disclaimer: less than a sixth of the number of teams on the women’s side exist on the men’s), and will hope to buck a truly absurd conference preseason poll, which slots the Wildcats in at 12th despite the fact that they are literally returning every player from a team that finished 11th last season, by keeping the program on an upward trajectory.
Northwestern will begin their season this weekend in Oxford, Ohio for something called the Miami Best Western Sycamore Inn Invitational, where they will take on USC Upstate, Virginia Tech, and hosts Miami of Ohio.