The Wildcats opened up their 2021 season without dropping a set, sweeping Rutgers 3-0 twice over the weekend.
After a middling 2019 campaign in which they finished with a 14-18 record, the Wildcats entered the new season facing off against a Rutgers team who has finished at the bottom of the Big Ten every year since joining the conference in 2014.
Northwestern started the first set out strong on a 13-3 run, including four kills from senior mid-hitter Alana Walker. Both teams exchanged blows, with neither side scoring more than two points in a row. Up nine, the ‘Cats scored the final four points to claim the first set, 25-12.
The second set was a different story than the first, as both teams kept the match tightly contested. Trailing the Scarlet Knights by one, the Wildcats rattled off seven of the next eight points scored to take the lead 16-11. They would not relinquish this lead, as Northwestern won the set by a score of 25-18. The ‘Cats later completed the sweep, 25-16, thanks to five kills by Walker and four by sophomore outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara.
Thomas-Ailara’s 13 kills led the Wildcats on Friday, who finished with 42 total. The sophomore standout finished last season with the second-highest kills per set percentage in the conference, earning herself second-team All-Big Ten honors. Walker finished with 11 kills of her own, hitting at a team-best 52.9%.
Junior setter Kiara McNulty was the leading facilitator, notching 30 of the team’s 35 assists, to go along with 10 digs and a career-high three blocks. The Wildcats also received help from Nebraska transfer Megan Miller, who recorded three aces in her team debut.
Northwestern followed up their Friday win against Rutgers with another matchup on, part of the Big-Ten’s attempt to reduce travel and the spread of COVID-19. The ‘Cats jumped out to a hot start right from the get-go, starting the first set on an 8-1 run behind three kills each from Thomas-Ailara and redshirt sophomore Abryanna Cannon. After Rutgers tightened their early deficit, Northwestern broke the game wide open with seven straight points to put it out of reach, 25-14.
The Wildcats’ second set was more of the same over the weekend, as McNulty’s 11 assists propelled the team to a 25-15 win, one win away from a double sweep. However, Rutgers did not go down without a fight. In the third set with Northwestern up 18-13, the Scarlet Knights rattled off five straight points (including three off errors) to tie the game at 18. With the score even at 20, the Wildcats put the game away with five of the next six points, including a crucial block from Walker and Thomas-Ailara.
The Wildcat attack was dominant, with Cannon and Thomas-Ailara combining for 30 kills. McNulty again was the assist leader, notching 29.
Despite the great offensive play, the strength of this Northwestern team over the weekend was the defense. Last season, the Wildcats were in the bottom five of the conference in opponent hitting percentage, allowing .210 of their hits to be returned. The team held Rutgers to a .105 hitting percentage Friday, then followed their performance up by keeping them to .095 Saturday. The stifling defense combined for 28 blocks, as well as 82 digs over the weekend.
Although it’s too early to tell how the season will turn out, especially given that they just played the Big Ten’s perennial punching bag, the Wildcats are already among the leaders of the conference in most statistical categories. Northwestern is currently atop the conference in opp. assists, opp. kills, opp. service aces, and opp. digs, while residing in the top three in nearly every other ranking.
The Wildcats will face their first major challenge of the season on Friday as they head to Lincoln to take on No. 5 Nebraska. They will be looking for a different result from last season, when they were swept twice.