First to Five: At Last

By Mila Jasper

Every week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper tackles the biggest stories in the Big Ten in her column “First to Five”. This week, she breaks down how Northwestern broke through for its first Big Ten win.

Every vital statistic looked bad for Northwestern Volleyball one week ago. The Wildcats, after losing the first nine matches of the conference season, blasted their dignity to dust when they lost their tenth straight match of the season to Rutgers, a team that had only ever won one other Big Ten match. And that match took place in 2015. 

The losses combined with the injury to Temi Thomas-Ailara made it seem as though Northwestern, already in the ICU, had flatlined. 

It’s for this reason that we are left with a mystery: what on earth went down at Northwestern Volleyball practices between the Rutgers loss and – hold the applause – the sweep of Michigan State on Friday? 

And although the Wildcats did not prevail against Michigan a night later, they did push the Wolverines to five sets. Remember, Michigan’s stock is rising; they nearly dropped sixth-ranked Minnesota a week prior and they beat Illinois the night before playing in Welsh-Ryan. I repeat: what has happened? 

We may never know the answer to that question. But here’s to hoping that whatever happened continues to happen. Keeping that in mind, there are two main takeaways from what Northwestern fans have to hope is the resurrection of the Wildcats’ season. 

Playing Tall at the Net 

Northwestern’s control of the net just in these last two matches has improved exponentially. In both matches, the Wildcats out-blocked their opponents by four and five blocks respectively. 

Desiree Becker and Alana Walker are leading the charge to close down the net from the middle. Neither are the world’s biggest blockers, but what they lack in size they make up for in speed. Though they both struggle to be up in time for quick attacks from opposing middles, they have demonstrated remarkable improvement in their ability to time their swing blocks wide to the pins. 

Becker came away from the weekend with 13 total blocks, posting just one error, while Walker finished the two matches with 9 total blocks and one error. Becker’s 9 total blocks against Michigan was good for a season, and thus career, best. 

Net presence can also be one of those intangibles that stats can’t track. Watching the Michigan State game from the sidelines, it was clear that Michigan State’s outsides, in particular, were swinging with a lot of anxiety. That’s what a strong presence at the net will do for you – make the other side think. And in volleyball, overthinking generates errors. 

Everything in moderation, including Temi Thomas-Ailara

The other most important aspect of Northwestern’s performance over the weekend was the balance of the offense. Without Thomas-Ailara on the court to take big swings on every broken play, Northwestern setter Payton Chang was forced to do what she could have been doing all along – distribute the ball evenly. 

Against Michigan, Becker put up 15 kills and hit for a .536 percentage. In the same match, Nia Robinson, who is doing her best to step into the hole left by Thomas-Ailara, added 14 kills. Walker and Ella Grbac, who recently returned to the lineup from injury, both scored 8 kills of their own. These 4 players combined for 126 of the team’s 158 total attack attempts. 

Compare that to Northwestern’s match against Wisconsin, where Thomas-Ailara took 49 of the team’s 109 total attack attempts. That means Thomas-Ailara herself took nearly 45% of all Northwestern’s swings. Against Maryland, Thomas-Ailara again took 49 swings. In that five-set match, she was 33% of the offense. By contrast, Nia Robinson had the most swings against Michigan and still only accounted for 23% of Northwestern’s total attack attempts. 

There’s nothing wrong with feeding your star player. In fact, I highly encourage it. But using Thomas-Ailara as a crutch until she needs crutches of her own? Not going to work.

That’s why this improvement, this re-balancing of Northwestern’s offense, is semi-painful to watch even as I try to hold back cheers while writing this. If Northwestern was able to beat Michigan State, and take Michigan to five, without their star attacker, then they could have been winning more matches all along by simply easing some of the weight off Thomas-Ailara. 

So even as I celebrate Northwestern’s improvements this week, I worry. I worry about how Northwestern will negotiate Thomas-Ailara’s return to the lineup. I worry that she may be hurting right now. I can only imagine the internalized frustration she must feel watching her team win without her, without the Big Ten leader in kills per set. After the load she has carried all season for the team, standing on the sidelines for the first Big Ten win of the season just feels wrong.

Looking ahead, all a Northwestern fan can do is hope. Hope that this past weekend wasn’t a fluke. Hope that Thomas-Ailara will be able to return to the lineup. And hope that when Thomas-Ailara returns, Northwestern will be a different team than the one she knew before she went down during the Rutgers match.

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