By Pat Timlin
This past week, our very own Pat Timlin caught up with now former Wildcat, volleyball player Emily Ehman. The volleyball team expected big things this past fall, however it was similar to the previous campaign, finishing 14-18 after going 16-16 the year prior. Ehman shed light on the season from her own perspective, detailing everything she could from turning points, to players who stepped up, her own favorite memories, and reasons for optimism.
How would you describe your time at Northwestern, especially being on the volleyball team?
I came in as a walk on, so I wasn’t expecting to play that much or do anything huge for the program in terms of playing wise. So I think for me, figuring out my role on the team, was a struggle at first and once I got comfortable by sophomore year, I felt a lot better about how I can contribute in other ways. But then I would say toward my junior year, I sort of got to a point where it was a big grind. I wasn’t necessarily enjoying volleyball as much as I used to.
But I think senior year season especially, even starting in the summer when all the freshmen came, it reignited my love for the game. Having people come in that are so fresh and just like refreshing faces to the program, and everyone being so dedicated to such a good cause. I feel like this season we were all so motivated to turn the program around.
Now focusing on this past season, let’s briefly chat about the start of the season as Northwestern tends to do well in the non-conference stretch. Can you speak to how the team tries to use this first month to prepare for the rest of the season?
We have those harder RPI teams. That if you can win, look really great at the end of the season when they’re picking tournament teams. We obviously started off really strong winning the first tournament at Miami, one of those like being a good, good tournament team. Then we played at Duke, which is a really tough team there.
Then the Chicago cup. I remember for us that Loyola game, as one of the ones that sticks out in my memory as one of the most frustrating games. These [Chicago Cup] teams come out against us, they have nothing to lose at all. They’re just giving it their all. I think before the Loyola game, like it being the first one, it was, “they hate us.” You know, our coach came from there, there’s always a weird vibe already between us.
It started out with their senior, her name is Heather and she just comes out with a huge kill from the right side slammed down on the 10 foot line. And it set the tone for how the match would go. We weren’t exactly matching them until down the line. I think we were playing not to lose rather than playing to win. We lost, thankfully we bounced back and swept the rest of the tournament.
The start of the Big Ten season was forgettable. A tough losing streak isn’t a great way to start the conference season, yet the matches themselves were close (for example Indiana, Purdue, home vs. Nebraska, Iowa). During ruts like this, what does Coach Shane Davis tell you guys? Is there anything the team tries to do to band together?
We kept doing this thing in the beginning of the season where we would be up 22-18, 20-15 and somehow we would manage to lose these sets that looked like we were very much going to win.
The goal was working on how to maintain a lead through an entire game, up to 25 points, not just working up to 20, up to 18, but like finishing those last five or ten points. So we worked in practice on finishing with that. We played three, four top 20 opponents in a row. It obviously doesn’t look great, just kind of daunting looking at that. But I think for us it’s that we know we can play in these games and we know we can beat these teams.
For us I think the Rutgers game was a big turning point.
The first or the second?
The first one. The loss. That was a big turning point of our season and like really wanting to get our stuff together. We all sat down as a team for like an hour, just trying to figure out like “What’s going on?” because we as a team are so cohesive off the court, if there’s a problem, we would settle it right away.
That should have been for us, our first [Big Ten] win of the season. It just couldn’t go on. And I think for us, luckily, we were playing Michigan State the next game. One of our assistants actually came from Michigan State, Coach Kristen, so it was another weird like friendly rivalry because our coach is so close to all those girls.
Kristen’s probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met. And so she was just putting so much effort into this game and whether that was scouting or anything else. I think for us it was sort of easy to light a fire behind her cause we like love and respect her so much. I think that was a good, obviously game to get our season really going. And, you know, finally to get a win under our belt.
It seemed from this point on you guys were a different team. What can you attribute that to? The Michigan game, after MSU, to me was my second favorite game of the season. Solely because Sarah Johnson came back and that was literally the highlight of my life. And I think that for us just sparked a new love and appreciation for the game and team. Someone who completely blew out their knee again eight months earlier, way ahead of her recovery time, working so hard to come back. She had been cleared literally that week, if not that day, to fully play.
So just throwing her out there and us being like, “f*** it, we have nothing else to lose. Let’s play Sarah.” And her doing so well, I was bawling. I mean, she is one of my best friends, it was incredible.
Let’s talk about a couple of first years who stepped up this season. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Temi. She was a –
Sorry. I don’t want to cut you off, but I think Temi is the best volleyball player I’ve ever played with by far.
Well what makes her so exceptional?
I think she’s so funny because if you talk to her, you would think “she has the highest voice like anyone I’ve ever heard.” It’s like so cute and seems so harmless, it’s so funny. Then when she’s playing, she’s dominant and aggressive and a really smart player.
Just coming in as a freshman, you’re not going to know an offense that well, you might not gel with everyone that well and you might just need a lot of developing. But like Temi just came out with such raw talent. I think once you get those errors down, she’s just so unstoppable. I think for her it was like she’s either going to get a really impressive kill or she’s going to error. I can’t remember she wasn’t blocked all that often…I don’t think she was dug that often either.
I think another part for her is just getting her confidence up. We can see her as this incredible player, but to her, I don’t think she really necessarily believes that yet. I think once they try to get her confidence up and teach her how to be a little less error prone, I definitely think she could be an All-American, easily – as long as they make the tournament, which they will.
Let’s pat you on the back for a second. In Big Ten play this past season, Northwestern ranked first in dig percentage and create percentage, plus second in convert percentage. What if I told you in 2018 Northwestern ranked last, last, and second to last, respectively?
I would absolutely believe you first, but I mean, it makes sense. I think we were digging balls I’ve never seen people dig before. I don’t even know where that came from cause it’s not like we added anything besides Charlotte, but other than that, we didn’t add any, like huge talent or anything.
We also were just changing our fundamentals. I think a lot of us had a lot of bad habits that we were trying to get rid of- that the coaches had tried to get rid of. But then they realize, “Okay, we actually really need to do this in order to dig more balls.” So we just broke it down. Literally we would be on our knees and dig balls just to get the fundamentals back.
You finished the season 3-1 in the last four games by beating Ohio State, beating Maryland, losing at the road in Illinois, but then getting it back on senior night. How did it feel to end the season on such a high note?
That was so nice. I mean, it was frustrating because it’s like “why can’t we play like this all the time?” But I think for me and the rest of the seniors, obviously it was a perfect way to go out. The last one was my favorite game I probably ever played in my life, and I didn’t even touch the court but it was so much fun just to beat this team.
Before every Illinois game for any sport, [Athletic Director] Dr. [Jim] Phillips will talk to the team because he hates Illinois. Like, he talks to every single team before the Illinois game and likes to put emphasis on just killing them. Going there and losing, but finally taking a set off them was at least making a stride. I think on senior night, obviously emotions are just so high, like we hate Illinois.
It was just a fun match, just exciting. I don’t even remember the last 10 points of the game. I was just sobbing. Just knowing “we’re going to win this game” was huge.
Favorite memories on or off the court?
I have two, wait no three. That’s a lot but hey I’m a senior I can do what I want.
First, playing at duke. Growing up a Duke fan, going to Cameron, and then like actually playing , and playing well, was really exciting for me.
Second, Sarah coming back. I was just bawling. It was so exciting, seeing her just step back on the court after so much hard work. She would do rehab for three hours a day just with the hopes of literally serving on senior night. But she was back a month earlier just playing.
Third, obviously beating Illinois was something I dreamed of since I stepped foot on Northwestern.
Off the court: our bus broke down on the way back from Indiana two hours North of Bloomington and like literally the middle of nowhere. I’m from that area and can confirm it was the middle of nowhere. The bus breaks down, it’s like 80 degrees outside, the scariness of potentially getting murdered at any second combined with like random fun games we’re playing, and getting back at 4 a.m. made it so much fun.
Position group to look out for next year?
They have a really good setter coming in from Michigan. Name is Alexa Rousseau. I’ve never seen her play, but I’ve heard so much hype around her that she’s going to be incredible. But at the same time, Kiara McNulty is a very, very close second, if not just as competitive as Coach Kristen. I think you’re going to see some really good competition there.
Anything you want to get off your chest?
I talked about finding my role. I obviously sort of became the leader of the bench mob, but I think that along with our injured squad, was a huge motivator for everyone. We had like nine people that were injured the entire year. I think half the team at some point had an ankle sprain. They were so great for everyone, whether they were on the bench or during games or in practice cheering people on.
I sometimes had more fun on the bench than I did actually playing games. People would say like, we had the most fun team, I honestly take great pride in it and as that was my role in the team was to be a motivator for everyone. Even if we would sit on the longer bus rides, and we would come up with cheers for hours. For me that was something that was really cool.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of WNUR Sport’s season recaps for the 2019-20 school year. A new recap will be published every Wednesday for the nine sports we broadcast.