Outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara has been a star for Northwestern volleyball during her four years in Evanston. She’s decided to enter the transfer portal, but before she moves on from Northwestern, we thought we’d take you back through the magic that has been TTA in WRA.
In the beginning…
Temitayo Thomas-Ailara came to NU from the south suburbs of Chicago, where she played at Marian Catholic High School. Coach Shane Davis recruited her early as part of his goals to rebuild the Northwestern volleyball program — she committed at the end of her sophomore year. Besides the university’s strong academics and close distance from home, Thomas-Ailara wanted to play at a school where the team and coaches felt like family.
“I think it’s the little things that this program does to make sure that outside of volleyball, we’re still friends, we’re still close-knit, and we can still depend on each other, even if it has nothing to do with volleyball,” Thomas-Ailara said.
TTA immediately made an impact during her first season in Evanston, leading the team in kills and placing second in the conference in kills per set. She also served a team-high 30 aces with a lethal jump serve, including seven in a five-set win over Texas Tech:
Sweeping Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium is a big memory from that year for Thomas-Ailara, and so is the soreness in her body. She said she leaned on her teammates, coaches and academic advisors to balance school, volleyball and her mental health during her hardest quarter to date.
“[Biomedical engineering] fall quarter freshman year is no joke,” Thomas-Ailara said. “Having volleyball on top of that was definitely a lot.”
Thomas-Ailara recorded season-highs of 32 kills and 12 digs in a mid-September win over American. After grinding through the tough conference schedule, Thomas-Ailara swung with a .471 percentage and delivered 17 kills to help the ‘Cats end the year with a home win over No. 17 Illinois on Senior Night.
When reflecting on her time at Northwestern, Thomas-Ailara said what she will remember most is a midnight bus breakdown returning from back-to-back losses at Purdue and Indiana. The team waited in the cold for more than two hours for a bus to arrive from Chicago, playing ninja and other games in a gas station parking lot.
“I was surprised that we had so much fun,” Thomas-Ailara said. “Just kind of living out a little dream of a night, like a fever dream night after an 0-2 loss.”
Thomas-Ailara was voted the Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times. She was honored at the end of the season on the All-Big Ten Second Team and the All-Freshman team, as well as earning a place on the AVCA North All-Region team.
Northwestern sent students home in March of Thomas-Ailara’s first year. Both of her parents are nurses who worked in a hospital during the early days of the pandemic, and she saw the mental toll it took on them. They told her stories of patients that inspired her to pursue a career in medical equity and increase access to healthcare once her volleyball career is over.
“Seeing those people struggling to bring their family members in just because they’re scared of how much it will cost them to get the help they need is really hard to see, and even hear about,” Thomas-Ailara said.
The team was committed to staying in shape and getting back in the gym whenever they could, but Thomas-Ailara said the reality of those goals was funny.
“All you would hear over Zoom was the heavy breathing of your teammates doing the sprints,” Thomas-Ailara said.
The ‘Cats returned over the summer to play beach volleyball with masks and split into pods with one setter each. The players were initially out of sync after taking their longest break from volleyball in years, but the tight friendships formed within the pods helped them fight the mental battles and get back into rhythm, Thomas-Ailara said.
The Wildcats played just 10 matches during the spring season, with 12 on the schedule postponed due to COVID-19. The ‘Cats won only four of their matches, but Thomas-Ailara said the challenges of the season brought the team closer and got them ready for the next year.
Her best performance came in a loss to Iowa near the end of February. Here’s one of Thomas-Ailara’s kills during the second of the five sets, which was decided by a score of 39-37:
TTA recorded 26 kills and 14 digs in the loss and was crucial in the five set win over the Hawkeyes the next day, when she had 16 kills and 13 digs.
Thomas-Ailara once again led the team in kills that spring with 3.85 per set. She finished fifth in the conference in kills and wrapped up the season with First Team All-Big Ten honors. The ‘Cats regrouped during a quick preseason and prepared for the upcoming fall schedule.
Thomas-Ailara had her best season yet in 2021: she recorded 492 kills (3.94 per set), 239 digs (1.91 per set), 59 blocks and 38 service aces. She led all Wildcats in kills and aces.
The hitter said that during this season, the team proved themselves in conference play. Taking sets from Nebraska, Penn State and eventual national champion Wisconsin showed Thomas-Ailara the team’s growth.
“My freshman year, we were getting swept by those teams, and sometimes it wasn’t even close,” Thomas-Ailara said. “That year, we were taking sets and we were close. And they were kind of nervous to play us.”
Thomas-Ailara delivered 20+ kills in six matches. Check out the 1000th kill of her career in the last home match of the season:
That's 1️⃣0️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ career kills for Temi Thomas-Ailara! pic.twitter.com/SE1eOHQYWb— Northwestern Volleyball (@NUVball) November 21, 2021
Thomas-Ailara was once again selected for First Team All-Big Ten after coming second in the conference in points and fourth in kills. She played in all 125 sets, but tore her lateral meniscus during the match against Nebraska. She got surgery in January after the season ended and spent the entire offseason doing rehab.
“Freshman year, we got sent home for COVID, and then our season was postponed, and then I had surgery, and now I’m a senior,” Thomas-Ailara said. “I never really got the offseason grind. Most college athletes are like, ‘Yeah, offseason was terrible!’ I never really got that.”
Thomas-Ailara’s senior season was nothing short of spectacular. She landed 502 kills, a whopping 4.33 per set. She bolstered the stat line with 1.47 digs per set and 59 total blocks. She took fewer serves and mixed up her serving style, dropping to 11 service errors on the season, compared to 104 the previous year. She even got a try at the bench mob’s signature towel jump rope for challenge calls.
“It was so fun, but it’s tiring,” Thomas-Ailara said. “You have to jump high to get over that rope!”
Thomas-Ailara was instrumental in some of the ‘Cats biggest wins this season. She recorded 25 kills and 10 digs in the takedown of No. 12 Purdue, and delivered 26 kills in the five-set thriller against No. 4 Nebraska.
“The excitement and the joy and just the satisfaction of being able to pull off those ranked wins, and show people that we are a good team and we have the potential to be great, was really cool,” Thomas-Ailara said.
The ‘Cats lost seven straight in November, but took a phenomenal set from No. 11 Penn State. Thomas-Ailara said the team’s 20-0 point streak is something she doesn’t think she’ll see again in her volleyball career.
Thomas-Ailara said this year’s team showed up ready to grind after every tough loss, which helped them to get the set from Penn State and the sweep over Illinois on her Senior Night. She led her team in kills and points for the fourth year in a row, and became NU’s sixth all-time kill leader.
TTA was named the conference’s Player of the Week three times during her senior campaign. She finished the year second in the Big Ten in kills and career kills, as well as fourth in points. She made the First Team All-Big Ten and the AVCA North All-Region team.
Thomas-Ailara now does her workouts at the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion, just like a regular student. She’ll graduate from Northwestern with a degree in biomedical engineering and one remaining year of eligibility.
TTA has entered the transfer portal. While she said physically and mentally preparing to play elsewhere has been weird, she’s excited to meet new people and live outside Chicago for the first time.
“I feel like having a new environment and new experiences will help me grow as a person as well as a player,” Thomas-Ailara said.
The hitter wants to play volleyball after college, then draw on the inspiration from parents — who have attended almost all of her matches — to pursue a career of equity within healthcare.
Thomas-Ailara said she wants her teams at Northwestern to be remembered as hard workers and people who had each other’s backs. She said each year the team set aside time to plan cheers and bench antics, share a Thanksgiving meal and throw a Christmas party.
“I think that was the family aspect of the team that I really, really loved.”