By Ben Krieger

Last season, the Northwestern Women’s Volleyball team was challenged often in their first year under head coach Shane Davis. After winning its first three matches of the year at a neutral-site tournament, the Wildcats carried a 7-5 non-conference record into Big Ten play. Northwestern only came away with three wins in the next 20 contests though, finishing 13th of 14 in an incredibly deep conference that featured six teams in the top 25 of the year-end AVCA Coaches’ Rankings.

Heading into 2017, the Wildcats look to continue their growth in Shane Davis’ system, albeit with considerable roster turnover. The quintet of Sofia Lavin, Kayla Morin, Caleigh Ryan, Maddie Slater, and Rafae Strobos has graduated, leaving Northwestern without five key pieces of last year’s rotation. On the flip side, PrepVolleyball.com ranked the Wildcats’ incoming class – the first to be recruited only by Davis – 22nd in the nation. With lots of new faces coming in to replace program mainstays, Northwestern will rely heavily on the leadership of the team’s three seniors: Symone Abbott, Gabrielle Hazen, and Taylor Tashima. Let’s break down the 2017 roster position by position:

Outside Hitter

The Wildcats return their top two attackers from 2016 in seniors Symone Abbott and Gabrielle Hazen (although Hazen is listed as a middle blocker, she often lined up outside for Northwestern in 2016). Abbott paced the team with 459 kills over the course of the season, finishing fourth in the Big Ten with 4.10 kills per set. Northwestern’s star hitter is certain to remain the focal point of the offense heading into 2017. After the two seniors, though, the position is wide open. The now-departed duo of Lavin and Morin combined for 973 attacks last year, and Davis will now be turning to the youth movement to replace that production. In addition to returners Allie Lindroth and Cassidy Nussman, incoming freshmen Nia Robinson, Danyelle Williams, and Ivey Whalen look to carve out major roles for themselves. Robinson especially is a name to watch, as she was Indiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year in her senior season.

Middle

Based on the roster on NUSports.com, Northwestern has four players in the middle: senior Gabrielle Hazen, junior Rachel Fara, sophomore Olivia Viscuso, and freshman Alana Walker. Last year, the now-graduated Maddie Slater was the Wildcats most prolific blocker, reaching 102 blocks throughout the season. While Hazen also played every set and finished with 88 blocks of her own, she often lined up next to Slater (technically not in the middle). With Fara and Viscuso each playing fewer than 30 sets, this position battle could get very interesting in 2017 if Davis decides to play Hazen outside more often than inside. Keep an eye on the freshman Walker, who was named a PrepVolleyball.com Senior Ace for her work in 2016.

Setter

No mystery here. Taylor Tashima will spend her fourth season in purple and white as the facilitator for the offense, most likely playing in every set. Junior Ashley Bush and freshman Britt Bommer may spell Tashima from time to time as the two battle to replace her next season.  

Libero/Defensive Specialist

This is by far the most interesting position on the roster, as it could feature a bona fide open competition to determine the pecking order. Last year, then-starter Katie Kniep suffered a midseason injury and was forced to retire from the team because of it. In her absence, Davis tried to convert senior Rafae Strobos from outside hitter to libero before turning to the freshman Sarah Johnson in mid-October. The 2017 roster features five candidates for playing time at the position: Johnson, redshirt-sophomore Kaitlin Tavarez, sophomore Emily Ehman, freshman Lexi Pitsas, and freshman Amy Wang. Johnson comes into 2017 as the presumed starter, but with so many defensive specialists, including two in the class of 2021, she will have to continue to improve on the strides she made during her first year to keep the job in the long term.

Final Prediction

Northwestern will improve upon last year’s record, with Symone Abbott continuing to shatter program records in the process. The team should finish around 9th in the Big Ten with six or seven wins in conference play.