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Volleyball: Wildcats drop first two, but upset No. 13 San Diego to open 2023 season

A lot of ups and downs in NU’s first matchups of the year.

Griffin Quinn / Northwestern Athletics

Traveling all the way across the country, Northwestern volleyball found itself saying “aloha” to the 2023 season, kicking off the year in Hawaii. The ‘Cats took part in the Hawaiian Airlines Rainbow Wahine Classic, seeing three West Coast opponents to start their non-conference slate. In the inaugural matchup against Hawaii, both sides traded sets, but the Rainbow Wahine pulled away in the fifth set to send the Wildcats back to the hotel with a 3-2 loss.

It did not get any easier for Northwestern, as it was swept in three straight sets by No. 9 Oregon the following day. With one match left on the island, NU would have to upset one of the top teams in the nation, No. 13 San Diego. The Wildcats picked up the opening set over the Toreros and never looked back, cruising to a 3-1 win, their first victory of the season. With the ‘Cats back on the mainland, here are the takeaways from their trip to Hawaii:

Julia Sangiacomo is the key to NU’s offense

Losing Temi Thomas-Ailara was a big loss for the Wildcats; however, the arrival of the fifth-year from Santa Clara has lightened the burden on NU’s offense. In her first weekend in purple and white, Sangiacomo was dominant. She racked up 48 kills in the three matches over the weekend, more than double any of her teammates. Now, she did have 28 errors, but nearly half of those came in the first game against Hawaii. In the Wildcats' upset against San Diego, No. 22 picked up her first 20+ kill game as a Wildcat, but with the way she played, expect those to come often. Her performance this past weekend earned her All-Tournament honors.

Watching her, it felt like defenses had no answers for Sangiacomo. The ball came off her hand like a missile, sometimes too strong. At 6-foot-5, No. 22 towers over opponents, giving her space to spike. It may have just been the first weekend, but Sangiacomo may turn out to be the key piece to unlocking Northwestern’s offense and taking it to the NCAA Tournament.

Contributions are coming from everywhere

In NU’s opening weekend, 75% of the team saw minutes, and each player provided value on the court. All five transfers saw the floor, providing key contributions across the tournament. Alongside Sangiacomo, Maddie Chinn added 20 kills and seven blocks, and Ellie Husemann added nine kills and seven blocks too. Rylan Reid saw limited minutes, but provided a jolt of energy off the bench for the Wildcats. Both first-years Drew Wright and Gigi Navarrete made their collegiate debuts during the opening weekend and recorded their first stats.

For the returning Wildcats, many found themselves in larger roles than a season ago. Leilani Dodson, NU’s primary middle blocker, racked up 12 kills and eight blocks in the ‘Cats’ season opener against Hawaii and added another six blocks in Northwestern’s upset over San Diego. Elle Stinston, stepping into the starting lineup, was a defensive weapon, recording 58 digs over the three games. Alexa Rousseau did exactly what she has done her entire career, setting her teammates for over 100 assists in the tournament.

Even players like Kennedy Hill, who saw limited action in her inaugural season, showed improvements already in 2023. Hill picked up four blocks in NU’s win over USD.

It is going to take every member of the Wildcats to exceed expectations if they finally want to reach the NCAA tournament. So far, Northwestern’s depth has shined in 2023.

Too Many Errors

For the beginning of the season, this was to be expected. However, it felt like the ‘Cats gifted their opponents points throughout the weekend. In the Hawaii game alone, NU had nearly 50 errors, allowing the Rainbow Wahine to go on multiple long scoring runs. Against Oregon, NU cut down on the amount of service errors, but had 10 more attacking errors than the Ducks. In the Wildcats’ lone win the tournament, they still had more service errors, but won the battle of attacking errors. In close games, handing opponents free points will be the difference between wins and losses. Self-inflicted wounds derailed the ‘Cats’ season; Northwestern will need to play clean volleyball to put itself in tournament contention this year.

The ‘Cats return to the court for their season home opener on Sept. 1, taking on Illinois State at 5 p.m. CT.