For the Northwestern volleyball team, the 2017 season was a bumpy ride, filled with both triumphs and difficulties. Overall in Shane Davis’ second season as the head coach for the Wildcats, the team only slightly improved upon their 2016 performance. After once again cruising in non-conference play, going 10-2 over the first 12 games, Northwestern struggled against some of the best teams in the country in the Big Ten, totalling only four conference wins. The Wildcats placed 12th of 14 teams in the powerhouse conference, a spot above the previous season and a possible sign of the trajectory of the young team.
In 2018, the team will have to grapple with the loss of a vital senior class, including star setter Taylor Tashima and all-time great outside hitter Symone Abbott. The team certainly has a high ceiling, but whether the younger players can adjust to the collegiate level of play remains to be seen. Here’s the breakdown for the season by position:
This should almost certainly be the most interesting position for the Wildcats, meaning it also will likely hold the most question marks. The team will be forced to replace its all-big ten hitter Symone Abbott and her 4.00 Kills per set that she amassed in 2017, which is no small task and will likely have to come by committee. The two most likely candidates to step up are sophomores Nia Robinson and Danyelle Williams. Robinson became the breakout player of 2017, reaching a 3.46 kills per set mark, second out of all Big Ten first-years. WIlliams, while only hitting a .153 clip, showed electric flashes of greatness and will look to improve her hitting percentage moving forward.
Robinson and Williams also aren’t the only ones who will need to step up to fill Abbott’s shoes. Returners Allie Lindroth and Ivey Whalen should also be fighting for starting roles, especially on a team that desperately needs experience.
The most intriguing part of the rooster comes from the outside first-years of Abryanna Cannon, Ella Grbac, and Hanna Lesiak. Cannon was a 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year finalist, Grbac was ranked PrepVolleyball’s 14th best outside hitter in her senior season, and Lesiak was also crowned a “Senior Ace” by PrepVolleyball. With this talented trio of youngsters, the outside hitter position could be the deepest the Wildcats have seen in years.
As for a player in the middle, the ‘Cats may very well have found the replacement for graduated senior Gabrielle Hazen in the form of Alana Walker. Walker, who will be a sophomore in the 2018 season was one of the breakout freshman on the roster, collecting the highest hitting percentage (.297) of any first-year in Northwestern program history.
Junior Olivia Viscuso also provides an option at middle blocker, as she picked up 17 blocks in just 10 matches played. If Davis chooses to move Walker or Viscuso to an outside hitter position over the course of the season, first-year Tatyana Hardwick stands at 6’2” and could stand to be a menacing presence up the middle.
This is possibly the biggest question mark for the Wildcats this year, following the departure of a program legend in Taylor Tashima. Sophomore Britt Bommer seems poised to take over, as she played in 18 matches in 2017, mostly coming in as a service specialist. Bommer will have to work for the starting job as the only other setter listed on the roster is first-year Kiara McNulty, who was named a 2017 Under Armour All-American in her high school senior season. Expect a healthy competition between the two as Northwestern attempts to replace Tashima.
In what was a positional question mark for the team coming into 2017, the positions of libero and defensive specialist seem to be extremely well covered for the upcoming season. Sophomore Lexi Pitsas solidified herself as the starting libero early on in the season and played in all 32 matches in 2017, averaging 2.83 digs per set and amassing 108 total assists, both of which were good enough for fourth in the conference amongst first-years. Pitsas was aided on the back line by junior Sarah Johnson, who totaled 28 aces and 211 digs last season. The two of them are poised to anchor the back line in 2018.
Despite what should be a position dominated by Pitsas and Johnson, the Wildcats have depth on their back line as well. Sophomore Amy Wang established herself as a service specialist in 2017 and should continue to give the team a different approach from behind the service line. Also expect to see junior Emily Ehman and first-year Michelle Lee for a change of pace.
Let’s face it: the Wildcats are young. On a team that will feature no seniors and will be driven by its sophomores and first-years, there’s no telling if the team has the experience to compete with higher-level Big Ten programs. That being said, they have the talent up front and if they can realize that should pick up five or six conference wins and finish around 10th in the powerhouse Big Ten.