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Reviewing Northwestern volleyball’s 2021 season

It was not the year we were hoping for.

When we last checked in on Northwestern volleyball just over a month ago, the Wildcats were sitting at 10-13 overall with a 5-7 record in Big Ten play. It wasn’t anything special, but they were still within the thick of things.

Now, NU’s season has come to a close. It concluded on November 27 with a 3-2 win over Michigan State. That victory meant the ‘Cats ended their 2021 season with a 12-19 record. They finished with an unfortunate 7-13 record in conference play.

To put it simply, 2021 wasn’t the season that people were hoping for under fourth year head coach Shane Davis. Davis arrived at Northwestern after leading the Loyola-Chicago men’s volleyball team to two national championships in 2014 and 2015, but has largely failed to replicate the success that he had in Rogers Park here in Evanston.

Close losses were an overarching theme in the Wildcats’ 2021 campaign. They began in the preseason, when the ‘Cats fell at Northern Colorado 3-2. Just one week later, they fell twice by a final score of 3-2, once to New Mexico State and once to Arizona. Against New Mexico State, Northwestern held a 2-1 lead, only to see it slip away in five sets.

The Wildcats faced one more 3-2 defeat before conference play rolled around, this time at the hands of DePaul. They were just a few points away from defeating the Blue Demons, but ultimately fell 19-17 in the final set.

Then came conference play. Northwestern didn’t record its first conference win until three games in, when the ‘Cats swept Rutgers in three straight sets. The following night, they had the huge opportunity to knock off No. 7 Minnesota, but they fell just short yet again. NU led 2-0 in sets against the Golden Gophers, only to lose set three by a score of 25-18, set four by a score of 31-29 and set five by a score of 15-7.

That heartbreaker seemed to set a tone for the rest of Northwestern’s conference games. While on the topic of ranked conference opponents, it’s important to note that the Wildcats failed to beat an opponent ranked in the top 25 all season long. After coming close against the Golden Gophers, the ‘Cats never came within one set of beating a ranked opponent for the rest of the year. They fell once to Nebraska, twice to Minnesota, once to Penn State, once to Purdue, once to Ohio State and twice to Wisconsin.

After their first loss to Minnesota, NU largely bounced back and forth between the win and loss column. The Wildcats were never able to string together a win streak of more than one game during Big Ten play. Instead, they suffered from multiple losing streaks, including a five-game losing streak that stretched from November 13 to November 26.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. The ‘Cats finally broke that streak of losses with a hard fought 3-2 win against Michigan State in their final game of the year. Northwestern was up 2-1 in sets, losing the fourth before closing out the fifth by a score of 15-13.

With their season now done, Northwestern volleyball has one more honor to celebrate. Junior Temi Thomas-Ailara received First Team All-Big Ten status on December 1, adding to an already impressive resume.

With Thomas-Ailara likely returning next year for her senior season, the ‘Cats will likely attempt to build around her skillset. It’s unclear whether libero Megan Miller or outside hitter Ella Grbac — both of whom are seniors — will return for another year. Senior setter Kiara McNulty has played her final game at Welsh Ryan-Arena and will graduate later this year.