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Previewing the 2021 women’s volleyball season

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The ‘Cats could be poised to breakout.

Photo [Alexa Rousseau] via team website on NUsports.com

The Basics

Head Coach: Shane Davis

2020 Record: 4-6

Sets won: 18

Sets lost: 22

Overview

Much like many other fall season sports, Northwestern women’s volleyball played their 2020 season in the spring of 2021. Their fall 2021 campaign begins tomorrow when they open the season against South Dakota in Greeley, Colorado, before continuing to tour the western United States and play opponents such as New Mexico State, UTEP, Arizona and Wyoming.

While the Wildcats’ spring season did stretch from January 22 to April 3, they were only able to play 10 matches, with 12 matches being postponed due to COVID-19 issues within Northwestern’s program. They opened the season with back-to-back wins in straight sets over Rutgers on January 22-23, but then did not play another match until February 19, where they lost 1-3 at Purdue.

By the end of their spring season, the ‘Cats had finished in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, with powerhouses Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska sitting on top and Michigan State, Iowa and Maryland down at the bottom. In fact, Northwestern didn’t manage to beat a single team that finished above them in the standings, but they did beat every team that finished below them. The Wildcats were just a few close sets away from a winning record.

This upcoming season, Northwestern returns their top two kill leaders in junior Temi Thomas-Ailara and redshirt junior Abryanna Cannon, who finished last year with 154 kills and 98 kills, respectively. Additionally, the Wildcats return their assist leader from last season in Alexa Rousseau, who finished with 260 assists in their 10 matches. Unfortunately, Northwestern does lose veteran presences in Nia Robinson, who transferred to UNC after playing in 29 sets last season for the ‘Cats, and Alana Walker, who is Virginia-bound after seeing action in 39 sets for the ‘Cats last year.

Struggles in 2020

While the Wildcats did manage to out-kill their opponents on the season, producing 491 kills to their opponents’ 453, it was the number of attacking errors they committed in 2020 that really cost them sets. It’s safe to say Northwestern was error-prone when attacking, as they committed 226 errors across 10 games compared to their opponents’ 168. Additionally, the ‘Cats were somewhat sloppy at times while serving, committing 23 more serving errors than their opponents over their season. Defensively, they were a solid team, but offensively, their errors cost them some valuable points.

Reasons for Optimism in 2021

This Northwestern team returns a lot of production from the previous year. While the aforementioned Robinson and Walker are no longer in Evanston, Thomas-Ailara and Cannon are key components who will aim to improve on their already stellar 2021 spring campaigns. Additionally, a veteran presence in senior Megan Miller, the only player to play in all 40 sets besides Thomas-Ailara and Cannon last season, returns to the team. Valuable rotational pieces in juniors Charlotte Cronister and Desiree Becker also return.

In addition to all the returning talent, Northwestern welcomes two new team members in DS/Libero Ellee Stinson, a first-year out Yorktown, Ind., and Libero Bella LeSage, a first-year out of Manhattan Beach, Calif. Stinson was named a 2020 Under Armour Second-Team All-American while LeSage was named to the Cal-Hi Sports 2019 All-State Second-Team. While inexperience may be a concern at the Libero position, there’s plenty of talent available.

Players to Watch

Temi Thomas-Ailara

This was to be expected. Thomas-Ailara was the Wildcats’ best attacker on the floor throughout the spring season, as she finished the 10-game stretch with 154 kills. Additionally, she finished third on the team in serve aces with eight total, bested only by Abryanna Cannon, who had 15, and Megan Miller, who totaled 11. Barring any dramatic changes, Thomas-Ailara will likely be Northwestern’s go-to outside hitter this year.

Abryanna Cannon

While Thomas-Ailara may be the Wildcats’ first option to win points, Abryanna Cannon is not far behind, and that was evident last season. Cannon finished second in points last year with 123, trailing only Thomas-Ailara’s 175.5. As previously mentioned, Cannon also finished first on the team last season in serve aces. On the defensive end, Cannon finished second in digs behind Miller and received the ball 311 times. It’s clear that Cannon is a crucial component for the ‘Cats on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.