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Volleyball: Wildcats falter at Loyola before two straight set wins

Heading into the rigors of Big Ten play, Northwestern lost a bit of momentum.

Temi Thomas-Ailara serves an ace against DePaul.

In their final weekend of non-conference play, Northwestern volleyball (9-3) couldn’t quite find a way to earn an outright Chicago Cup trophy. Dealing with injuries to their top two defensive specialists, the Wildcats lost a close five-setter to a Loyola team that went onto claim a share of the tournament championship before earning two quick wins in succession over UIC and DePaul.

Against the Ramblers (7-6) on Friday afternoon, the Wildcats started off well before losing the second and third sets, responding to force a fifth and final set, and finally falling 17-15 in what was a bit of an ugly match all-around. The teams each committed 25 attack errors, and combined for 23 service errors and 15 mistakes in return.

Missing both Michelle Lee (she played in a single point at the end of the fifth set) and Lexi Pitsas, Northwestern started with converted outside hitter Allie Lindroth at libero before switching to true first year Charlotte Cronister in the fourth set. The Ramblers took advantage of the inconsistent passing that resulted, recording 62 kills (7 unassisted) to the Wildcats’ 55, Addie Barnes and Heather Kocken leading the way with 15 each.

NU, meanwhile, fed true first year Temi Thomas-Ailara (pictured) early, but she managed a tough ratio of 17 kills against 12 attack errors in 55 swings. Nia Robinson added 14 kills despite 10 errors of her own, while middles Alana Walker and Desiree Becker combined for 18 kills with just one error apiece on limited attempts. Cronister led the way on the defensive end with 18 digs, while Payton Chang and Kiara McNulty split time at setter in what was ultimately a disappointing loss to a middling Loyola group.

Quickly, though, Northwestern turned it around. Though they later straight-setted the Ramblers, UIC was no match for a Wildcat team dead-set on getting back to their winning ways. The Flames went down in three sets in the Saturday morning match, with NU easily handling the first two before a late push required a Northwestern run to finish things off.

This time, Thomas-Ailara and Walker dominated. The former garnered 14 kills on 28 attempts while adding two solo blocks and a solid seven digs, while the latter continued her efficiency with 12 kills on 20 attempts and two solo blocks of her own alongside a pair of assisted blocks. Chang fully took over the setting duties, with 34 assists and even two additional kills, and Cronister paced the defense once more with ten digs.

Later that evening, the Blue Demons (8-4) tried to defend their home court against the ‘Cats. Let’s just say it didn’t go well. DePaul forced just one error in attack through the first two sets, never truly putting pressure on Northwestern and failing to break 20 points even once.

As a team, the Wildcats outhit their opponents .405 to .021. Thomas-Ailara had by far the most efficient game of her young career, with 11 kills and no errors on 18 attacks along with three service aces. For her part, Chang was 3-3 on attacks while adding 27 assists. For good measure, Northwestern put up a whopping 16 blocks, as Becker and Olivia Viscuso each had three solo and four assisted denials at the net.

Unfortunately for coach Shane Davis and the Wildcats, the competition gets much harder very quickly with the start of Big Ten play. On Friday, Northwestern welcomes a relatively comparable in skill level Iowa squad to Welsh-Ryan Arena, before Saturday’s marquee tilt with #3 Nebraska, the defending national runner-ups.