By Zach Koons
When Shane Davis became the head coach of the Northwestern volleyball team in 2016, he promised to establish a culture of winning in the notoriously difficult Big Ten conference. Now entering his fourth season at the helm of the program, Davis has begun the arduous process of turning the Wildcat team into a powerhouse, but has yet to completely turn the corner.
Throughout the 2018 season, the ‘Cats struggled to remain consistent. Obviously, in a conference littered with top-10 programs such as Illinois, Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota (just to name a few), consistent winning is hard to come by, but often times unforced errors seemed to doom Northwestern. Even with up and down play, Northwestern amassed an overall .500 record for the first time since 2014, going 16-16 and winning six matches against conference foes. The Wildcats will return every starter, many of whom gained vital playing experience in just their first or second year at the collegiate level. Alongside yet another highly-ranked recruiting class, it seems like the team is prepared for another step in the right direction.
Here are positional previews for the upcoming season:
It’s no secret that the Wildcats will have to improve offensively if they hope to climb up the ladder in the Big Ten standings. Northwestern ranked second-to-last in the conference in 2018 with a measly .185 hitting percentage, beating out only Rutgers, a program that wasn’t able to win a conference game last year. Of course, the driving force for the offense comes from the outside positions, but the team faltered in its attempts to replace the legendary Symone Abbott from the class of 2017. However, there’s plenty of room for improvement among the young hitting corps, including a skilled newcomer.
The group will be led once again by now-junior Nia Robinson. After bursting onto the scene as a first-year in 2017 with a 3.46 kills per set mark, Robinson followed it up in her sophomore year, establishing herself as a staple in Big Ten volleyball. The 6’ 2” Indianopolis native boasted a 3.90 K/S number, placing her in the top five in the conference. However, Robinson was only able to put together a .200 hitting percentage, a number the junior must improve upon if she wants to become a true #1 option.
Robinson was flanked by two first-year attackers who each gained vital experience in their first year in the Big Ten. Both Abryanna Cannon and Ella Grbac were able to relieve some of Robinson’s workhorse load, playing over 85 sets each in 2018. Despite their contributions, both players hit under .175 during the season, which is a number that will desperately need improvement if the two want to continue to be contributors during their second year.
Finally, there’s even more reason to be optimistic if you’re a Wildcat fan looking for young outside hitting talent. Undoubtedly the biggest acquisition for Shane Davis’s squad will be the 2018 First Team Under Armour All-American Temi Thomas-Ailara. A local player from Glenwood Illinois, Thomas-Ailara’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Having already established herself as a top-25 recruit in the nation and gaining national experience as a member of the U17 National Championship team, there’s almost no doubt that her game will transition to the collegiate level.
Defensively in 2018, Northwestern performed admirably as individuals, but struggled as a team to stifle high powered conference offenses. While the defensive holes can’t be solved by just one player, Alana Walker has established herself as the middle blocker to build defensive schemes around. After a strong first year, Walker continued to improve in her second season, ranking ninth in the conference with an average of over 1.1 blocks per set. The Chicago native also remained active on the attack, hitting a .289 clip, while averaging just north of two kills per set. Now entering her junior season, Walker seems poised to remain the Wildcats’ best option for a well-rounded middle.
Still, chances are good that Walker won’t be alone as a contributing middle. Olivia Viscuso returns as one of the four seniors on the roster after her best year as a Wildcat in 2018. Viscuso didn’t attack often in her junior year, but when she did, she made defenses pay, hitting a team-high .336 clip. Besides Viscuso, the recruiting class of 2023 boasts two new middle-blockers that are sure to be used quickly by Davis. Desiree Becker and Olivia Haskins both come in as a top-150 recruits according to PrepVolleyball and according to Davis will both bring a level of physicality that will help provide key sets off of the bench.
When the 2018 season began, the starting setter position seemed to be a massive question mark and it looks as if 2019 will be the same. Both Britt Bommer and Kiara McNulty return for the ‘Cats and will battle once again to be the facilitator in Northwestern’s offense.
Bommer, now a junior, played in 81 sets in 2018 and led the team with 8.65 assists per set. Despite having her best season in her first year as the primary setter, Bommer struggled at times and as a result, often split matches with McNulty. The scheme change was radical in Davis’s program, as the Wildcats were previously used to receiving sets from a lone setter. The system appeared to throw the team into disarray offensively, eventually leading to Bommer becoming the starter with McNulty serving as reliable backup. Expect more of the same in 2019 as the 6’ 1” Bommer also remains a more reliable piece in the blocking game, alongside middle blocker Alana Walker.
In last year’s preview, I absolutely did not give enough credit to first-year Michelle Lee and she proved me wrong with an impressive first campaign. Lee quickly won over the starting libero job and played in a team-high 113 sets, while pacing the squad with 3.35 digs per set. I see no reason why Lee shouldn’t be the starter on day one of the 2019 season, but she’ll desperately need help on the back line if the Wildcats want to sure up their defense.
Northwestern managed an average of 13.40 digs per set in 2018, which was good enough for 11th in the conference, but trailed the 10th place Illinois team by almost a full dig per frame. In order to take the next step in the Big Ten, it’s vital for the ‘Cats to improve passing along the back line first and foremost. That passing success will stem from the play of senior Sarah Johnson and sophomore Hanna Lesiak. The two each boasted receiving percentages above .935% in 2018, but will need to continue to improve in order to help out Lee in the back row. With Lexi Pitsas remaining in the rotation and new recruit Charlotte Cronister entering the mix, it’s very likely that Davis will rotate his defense based on who has the hot hand.
Last year, I was spot on in predicting the ‘Cats to pick up 6 conference wins on their way to almost 10th place in the Big Ten. Despite continuing to be one of the youngest programs, I expect the early experience gained by last years young players to be extremely valuable moving into 2019. Coupled with an upcoming full season inside a gorgeous Welsh-Ryan, I expect this team to take quite a leap forward, even with the intense degree of difficulty. If the team is able to grow from last year and successfully plug-in the newest recruiting class, they should be able to pick up 8-9 conference wins and finish right in the thick of things in the nation’s best volleyball conference.