Some of the best volleyball players in the nation took to Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. for the conference and the nations’ first ever media days for the sport. In attendance was Northwestern head coach Shane Davis, OH Temi Thomas-Ailara and L Megan Miller, all three of whom took time to speak with reporters about the upcoming season, Davis’ top-ranked recruiting class, the changing climate of college athletics and more. Below are highlights from the press conference, but the full video is available here:
On 2022 outlook
Albeit situated in arguably the toughest volleyball conference in college athletics, Northwestern did not stand out among Big Ten opponents in 2021. Davis and the ‘Cats finished last season with an overall record of 12-19 (7-13 B1G), leaving more to be desired by fans, players and coaches alike. However, there is a new energy surrounding this year’s squad:
Coach Davis: “This upcoming season is going to be exciting for us. We are returning everybody except for one player from last year’s roster. We have four incoming first-years who are making an immediate impact. Been with us all summer. They’ve been working their tails off as well throughout the offseason, summer and whatnot as well.
“I think our team is hungry. I think there’s a few areas we’ve got to get better at. Even when you look at the point differential of things we continue to get better and better.
“And I think with the returning piece coming in, incoming class, those couple of components, we’re not young anymore, which is exciting. We were really young this past season.
“But I think we get more consistent at the pin. We stay healthy in the middle and we control the ball a little bit better. And I think we can be a really dangerous team overall.”
On Temi Thomas-Ailara playing through injury last season
Last year’s team MVP was undoubtedly outside hitter Thomas-Ailara, who achieved Big Ten First Team honors despite suffering an injury in the early goings of the season. Fondly referred to as a “high-flying highlight reel” by Davis, Thomas-Ailara is back for her senior season stronger than ever:
Coach Davis: “She’s been an exciting person to coach for me and she continues to get better and better. And one thing that probably a lot of us don’t know here is Temi went through an injury in the fall, first opening Big Ten match of the year.
“We didn’t know she was going to be able to play throughout the rest of the season, what that would look like. And I would say Temi has a new toughness that surprised me this year, and it was really cool to experience. And this offseason has been tremendous for her. She’s worked her tail off.”
Temi Thomas-Ailara: “I really give it to up to my team. Throughout that season they were so supportive of me through the injury, asking if I needed anything on and off the court. And they were just really good people, really good teammates, really good friends during that time.
“And just having that type of support can push you to do things you didn’t think you could. And I’m really grateful to them. And the coaching staff as well, really supportive throughout the injury, asking what I needed, like, throughout practice, if I needed to take fewer jumps or not jump at all, just being really supportive throughout the injury, making sure I was okay physically, mentally, emotionally.”
On how recent success in Northwestern athletics is rubbing off on the volleyball program
Field hockey, wrestling, softball, lacrosse, oh my! Reporters in Rosemont wanted to know how the victory laden atmosphere on campus is infusing a winning-attitude into 2022’s volleyball team:
Coach Davis: “Obviously successful programs and having a great relationship with those coaches, being able to talk to them on a daily basis is really important. I know our student-athletes hang out with their student-athletes, have close relationships as well. I know the dialogue is always there.
“I think for me it’s the persistence and the daily grind that we all go through. But it’s continuing to understand what your values are and principles and sticking to those things and trying not to get caught up in the big world of college athletics that’s evolving and changing, but you need to change on the same side in order to keep up.
“I would say the persistence piece and just understanding what Northwestern is, the academic piece of it as well. There’s the whole student-athlete experience.”
On how rebuilding the program has revamped recruitment
This year, Davis is bringing in the top-rated recruiting class in program history. Including 2020 Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year Kathryn Randorf (OH) and Los Angeles-based setter Sienna Noordermeer — who picked Northwestern over Big Ten powerhouse Nebraska — this year’s newbies are emblematic of the transformation Davis has been implementing in his program since he arrived in Evanston seven years ago:
Coach Davis: “As far as the recruiting piece, I mean, it’s many years of going through and building those relationships and continuing to get better every single year and telling our story.
“And Northwestern’s been through a lot of changes in the last few years, ever since really I’ve been there just in terms of facility-wise and support and we have an athletic director change. And there’s a lot of moving pieces to that. But our story has always been the same in terms of what we’re trying to build as a program.
“With those recruits we obviously understood our needs, understood those recruits and what their wants are and there would be a perfect fit. But we take our time through that recruiting process as well.
“And we allowed them to make the decision on their own and they chose Northwestern. We chose them. And it was a perfect marriage with those four individuals with our program.
“We’re excited. They’ve made immediate impact in the gym this summer with the strengths and conditioning coach as well as open gyms.”
On the changing climate of college athletics and the growth of volleyball on a national scale
Reporters wanted to know how all of the changes, between NIL and volleyball’s popularity, were affecting Miller and Thomas-Ailara along with their teammates:
Megan Miller: “I think that just having this day [media days] says enough. I mean, this is a huge step. This is going to bring women’s sports even more towards the top. It’s an incredible thing.
“And I think volleyball, especially, is being noticed more and obviously the Big Ten is huge in volleyball. So I think that’s just like the first step.
And with NIL, that’s just changed athletics completely, right? I mean, everyone can get paid whether you’re at the bottom, at the top. That’s been huge. And going through COVID — I wouldn’t be here without COVID because I’m in my fifth year now, thanks to COVID.”
Temi Thomas-Ailara: “I completely agree with Megan. I think fall sports have it tough just coming in and having to play. But I think having the opportunity to come in over the summer and meet the girls, getting a feel for college has been helpful for all of the classes that have been able to do it at Northwestern. It just helps you build relationships before the season starts and kind of get a feel for everything before the stress of school and volleyball kicks in. So really exciting.”
On Davis’ recent contract extension
Just before the turn of the year, Davis signed a multi-year contract extension. Given his recent recruiting success and outstanding development of players like Miller and Thomas-Ailara, who have been with Davis for the majority of his tenure, the move was well-received by the Northwestern community, and reporters probed Davis on what it’s like to have such support from the university:
Coach Davis: “It’s been great. And one thing I feel like, what’s really unique at Northwestern — maybe not, I don’t know — but I have an outstanding relationship with my administration. And so we’re in tune to what’s going on on a daily basis. And the multiyear contract extension was great, but it shows they believe in me but I also believe in myself and the team. The contracts are great. But as long as we can continue to do what we’re doing on a daily basis, those conversations are always easy as they go down the road as well.
“But the support continues to get better and better throughout every year that I’ve been there. And just excited about the vision that our department and our athletic director has for our program, and obviously what Big Ten volleyball is doing in general.”