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Northwestern volleyball post-mortem 2023: End of an era

Shane Davis’ final season in Evanston failed to produce a postseason berth once again.

Caden Greco/Northwestern Athletics

Another volleyball season has come and gone for the Wildcats, and it was another season with a lot of meat left on the bone.

Losing nearly half of its roster in the offseason, including All-American Temi Thomas-Ailara, Northwestern brought in seven new faces, including five transfers to replenish its roster. In an up-and-down season, the ‘Cats went on to finish 15-15. However, their 9-11 Big Ten record was the best in former head coach Shane Davis’s eight years at the helm of the program, and NU’s most conference wins since 2010. Despite inching closer to a winning Big Ten record, Northwestern parted ways with Davis after the season. In a statement on Dec. 1, athletic director Derrick Gragg said, “based on the performance of the program during his tenure, it is time for a change in leadership.”

However, I’d be remiss not to mention that Davis was named in a lawsuit against NU back in July, which alleged he partook in the hazing of a former player. Inside NU subsequently learned more information about the incident, including an unannounced suspension for the remainder of the 2020-2021 COVID season. After these allegations were made public, Davis pulled out of Big Ten Media Day, sending assistant coach Pedro Mendes in his place.

It was not all negative for the Wildcats. Graduate student Julia Sangiacomo, a transfer from Santa Clara, earned First-Team All-Big Ten Honors, marking the fourth-straight year a Wildcat has earned the honor. Despite missing some time with a knee injury, Sangiacomo finished her lone season in Evanston with 380 kills, which placed her in the conference’s top 10. Alexa Rousseau added another 1,061 assists to her career, moving her into sixth all-time in program history.

This season also saw the emergence of younger ‘Cats. Sophomores Kennedy Hill and Averie Hernandez became household names in Evanston, posting strong performances in expanded roles. Hill, splitting time with Leilani Dodson at the middle blocker spot, had 106 total blocks on the year and added 124 kills on the offensive end. Hernandez, who didn’t see the floor consistently until midway through conference play, still finished third on the ‘Cats with 217 kills, No. 8 had 14 games of double-digit kills while also adding 22 aces from behind the service line. With Kathryn Randorf, who made the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team in 2022, and Sienna Noordermeer, who redshirted this season after making an impact as a setter in 2022, the ‘Cats have a strong class of sophomores to lead this program into a new era.

Despite the influx of talent, Northwestern struggled to play clean matches. Even going back to the first game of the season, the Wildcats had Hawaii on the ropes, but 51 errors in the match allowed the Rainbow Warriors to swoop in and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Once back on the mainland, the ‘Cats picked up a victory in their first home match; however, they were soundly defeated by UW-Milwaukee 3-1 just a few days later, with 38 errors hurting NU throughout the contest. The same issues arose the next time Northwestern took the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena. After soundly going up 2-0 on UIC, the Wildcats were reverse-swept by the Flames, losing 3-2. It was a loss that epitomized the problems for NU during the Davis era: mistakes compounding to allow opponents to go on massive runs.

Moving into Big Ten play, the Wildcats got off to a rough start. NU was swept in back-to-back matchups to begin their conference season, falling to No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 15 Penn State. When the top-ranked Badgers came into town, Welsh Ryan was electric. Wildside packed out both sides of the student section, making it feel more like a men’s basketball game than a volleyball match. The atmosphere did not help the play on the court, though, as the Badgers waltzed their way to victory. It did not get better for the ‘Cats, who dropped to 0-3 after losing to Michigan State in five sets.

On its first Big Ten road trip, NU came away with its best win of the season. Traveling to West Lafayette, Indiana, The Wildcats faced off with the No. 17 Boilermakers. After falling behind 2-0, the Cardiac ‘Cats stormed back and rallied for three straight-set victories, upsetting Purdue for the second year in a row. In the match, Sangiacomo rattled off 33 kills, good for second-most in a single game in program history. However, after its best game of the year, Northwestern followed it up with one of its worst performances in 2023. Heading to Ann Arbor, the Wildcats took on a three-win Michigan team. While the sets were tightly contested, the Wolverines held on for a 3-1 victory. In the match, NU had 46 errors, including eight receiving errors. It was a letdown game of all letdown games, all but slamming the door shut on any chance the ‘Cats had at making a push for their first NCAA Tournament bid.

Throughout the rest of the season, NU traded victories and defeats weekly, but closed the year out winning four of its last five. Yet, by the time those victories occurred, the writing was on the wall. The Wildcats finished under .500 in the Big Ten once again and fell short of their goal of making the postseason. As the curtain fell on the 2023 season, it also did on Davis’ tenure at the helm of the program. After eight seasons, Davis leaves Evanston with a 103-128 record, but also a mere 45-105 mark in conference matches.

With new leadership taking over the program, the future of Northwestern volleyball is unknown. Make no mistake about it, this team has the talent to be in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, yet it has not consistently put it together. If the right coaching staff can come in and develop this young core properly, the ‘Cats can make some noise in the immediate future. However, if Gragg does not get this one right, Northwestern will remain relegated to the bottom of the Big Ten. A new voice was needed, but now it’s time to see if it can turn a historically average program into a tournament team.