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2021 Northwestern volleyball preview

Pushed back from the fall, an abbreviated season begins tonight against Rutgers for the promising Wildcats.

Temi Thomas-Ailara goes up for a tip attempt against Wisconsin.

After the COVID-19 pandemic pushed their season back to the spring and with a difficult Big Ten-only schedule in the toughest conference in the nation awaiting them, head coach Shane Davis and Northwestern volleyball will finally get back on the court Friday night.

A two-game weekend series against Rutgers begins a 22-game gauntlet in which the Wildcats will face each conference opponent aside from Penn State and Ohio State in the same format, either staying home or traveling for a pair of weekend matches against the same team in each of the next 11 weeks. For Northwestern coming off of a promising, if slightly disappointing, 14-18 (5-15 B1G) finish in 2019, the star-studded schedule offers a chance to push toward their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade in head coach Shane Davis’ fifth season with the program.

Offensively, the Wildcats return a ton of firepower. Though steady middle Olivia Viscuso was lost to graduation, NU returns each of its five hitters and blockers that registered at least 100 kills in 2019, including star sophomore Temi Thomas-Ailara, who registered a whopping 4.61 points and 3.94 kills per set in her first season in Evanston en route to second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Senior outside hitter Nia Robinson looks to once again join Thomas-Ailara in anchoring the offensive production after crossing over the 1000-kill mark for her career in her third straight season finishing in the top 10 in the conference in kills per set (3.39 in 2019). Ella Grbac adds support on the outside, while Alana Walker and Desiree Becker will be key up the middle. But even more production is returning on the outside, with both Danyelle Williams (243 kills in 2018) and Hanna Lesiak (95) returning from surgeries that cost them their 2019 seasons.

Tasked with distributing to all of that talent will likely be junior setter Kiara McNulty. McNulty saw some time as a sophomore despite grad transfer Payton Chang’s arrival on campus, but her setting ability will be extremely key, with the Wildcats only rostering a pair of players at the position. Extremely promising top-50 recruit Alexa Rousseau, a 6-foot-3 true first year who is the other option should McNulty falter.

In the back line, Northwestern finds its ranks slightly depleted. Charlotte Cronister, a true sophomore who showed plenty of promise last season in amassing an impressive 239 digs and a solid .945 receiving percentage (think of it like a fielding percentage in baseball, for readers unfamiliar with the stat), is the only rostered defensive specialist to play in even a quarter of NU’s sets in 2019.

But as a part of his four-player incoming class, Davis made an impressive move in adding junior transfer Megan Miller. Miller, who comes to Evanston after having played a significant role at national power Nebraska, brings experience at the sport’s highest level, with over 400 career digs in her career as a Husker including 19 to go with three assists in an NCAA Semifinal (!) win over then-No. 3 Illinois in her first year in Lincoln. She will almost certainly take over and solidify what appeared to be a relatively precarious libero position.

With experience all over the court and enough offensive firepower to hang with most opponents even in a stacked Big Ten, Northwestern heads into the 2021 season with plenty of hope. After back-to-back 10th-place finishes, improvement looks distinctly attainable if not likely.

Though achieving a .500 record, likely the requisite for an NCAA Tournament berth, would be difficult, in Shane Davis’ first season with a team composed entirely of his recruiting classes, the Wildcats may just have enough talent to get there. The road begins tonight and Saturday with conference bottom-feeder Rutgers, both games airing on BTN+ or over the radio via WNUR Sports.