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Three questions for Northwestern volleyball’s 2023 season

Is this the year the ‘Cats finally break through?

SPORTS-VOL-NORTHWESTERN-TB Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Two weeks away from its season opener in Hawaii, Northwestern volleyball will look very different from the last time it took the court. The ‘Cats lost seven of their last eight to close out the 2022 season, knocking them out of contention to make the NCAA Tournament. NU also finished 7-13 in Big Ten play for the second year in a row, which is tied for its best Big Ten season under head coach Shane Davis. The Wildcats suffered heavy losses this offseason, losing three prominent figures in Desiree Becker, Hanna Lesiak and All-American Temi Thomas-Ailara. To replenish its losses, Northwestern brought in seven new faces to round out its squad.

The pressure is mounting on Davis, who was named in a lawsuit over hazing allegations, which were corroborated by multiple former players to Inside NU. Davis, who had tremendous success with the men’s volleyball program at Loyola Chicago, has yet to show he can be a successful Big Ten women’s volleyball coach. The ‘Cats have yet to get over the hump with Davis at the helm, and will have to prove that their reloaded roster is up to the gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule. Right now, there are many questions surrounding NU Volleyball, and here are three that should define the Wildcats 2023 season.

Where does the offense come from?

For the past four seasons, every time the Wildcats stepped onto the floor, it was Temi time. Thomas-Ailara was as dominant as any player in the country, and singlehandedly kept the ‘Cats in games or willed them to victory. In 2022, she led the entire Big Ten with 502 kills, and her 1,546 career kills puts her fifth in Northwestern history. She was completely dominant, with opposing teams having no answer when a ball came off No. 12’s hands. Alongside TTA, Lesiak was second with nearly 300 kills, and Becker added another 177 kills of her own. The trio combined for roughly 62% of NU’s kills on the season, so making up for all of that firepower has to be priority 1A for the Wildcats during the preseason.

With so much of the offense gone, who steps up for the Wildcats will be the deciding factor in how their season goes. Former Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year Kathryn Randorf will be at the forefront of the revamped Wildcats’ attack. Randorf, who had 256 kills last year and was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team, is expected to slide into the starting lineup this season and continue to develop into one of the conference’s top attackers.

Sophomore Averie Hernandez will also see an increase in minutes this season, as she looks to find her footing at the collegiate level. Hernandez only played in 13 matches, but showed her offense prowess in high school, notching over 1,000 kills. Furthermore, expect Leilani Dotson and transfers Maddie Chinn, Julia Sangiacomo and Rylen Reid to chip in and help the ‘Cats score this upcoming season.

Replacing TTA is nearly impossible, but if NU can get contributions from across the board, it can be competitive against top Big Ten opponents.

Can the ‘Cats limit the number of mistakes?

Watching Northwestern last year, it felt like the Wildcats were often shooting themselves in the foot. NU had numerous unforced errors each game. Whether it was a serve into the net or an errant pass, Northwestern seemed to gift its opponents points every match. The Wildcats had about 70 more attacking errors than their opponents. In close games, against superior teams, the ‘Cats need to play clean volleyball if it wants to pull off upsets. Northwestern also had more ball-handling errors and reception errors than its opponents.

These mistakes would often allow opponents to go on long scoring streaks and put sets away before the Wildcats even had a chance to make it competitive, so halting these long streaks is something the ‘Cats need to do more often this upcoming season. The way to do it is to stop gifting opponents points and make them earn each set. If Northwestern can play clean matches this season, it has the talent to compete in the Big Ten.

How will an influx of new talent affect Northwestern?

With NU bringing in seven new players, including five transfers, the ‘Cats will have to mesh and find their rhythm playing together. Players will have to learn how to communicate, what everyone's strengths are, and in general how to play together. Sure, it is easy to do in practice; however, it is much harder when the bullets are flying at game speed.

Furthermore, the Wildcats need their new faces to make an instant impact on the team in order to have a successful season. If last season showed anything, is that depth is needed. At the end of the season, NU was playing without a setter due to injuries to Alexa Rousseau and Sienna Noordermeer, so Davis brought in Lauren Carter from Denver to ensure that injuries could not derail a season again. The ‘Cats brought in multiple outside hitters to round out their attack, but each of them will have to adapt to how the ball comes out of Rousseau’s, Noordermeer’s and Carter’s hands. With Megan Miller gone, first-year Gigi Navarrete will have to be ready to go in and dig out balls firing off some of the best attackers in the nation, which will not an easy adjustment from high school.

Northwestern will need all six women to play significant sets if the ‘Cats finally want to get over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament. The pressure is immense, but Northwestern has the pieces to be a good team. Now, it just has to put it all together.