2021 NU Volleyball Season Preview
By Pat Timlin
Northwestern volleyball head coach Shane Davis is entering his fifth season. With the current seniors his first recruiting true class, everything from this point forward is a direct reflection of the two-time national champion’s coaching abilities, recruiting capabilities and decision making. This season will be a full display of the Shane Davis Experience™️ in Evanston.
To credit Davis, he’s made consistent strides with the program. The Wildcats have risen from the cellar of the Big Ten, finishing one spot higher every season he’s been in charge. Now his goal is to vault NU into the upper echelon of the conference.
Temi Thomas-Ailara figures to play a key role. As a first-year, Thomas-Ailara led the team with 3.94 K/S and 30 SA (second and 15th in the Big Ten, respectively), earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors. The sophomore will seek to maintain her dominant play the entire season after her aggressiveness declined and injuries limited her abilities as last year wore on. After a 418-day hiatus, expect the sophomore from Chicago to come out firing.
The most intriguing, and potentially important, position group lies in the back row. Newcomer Megan Miller is the name to know, as the Nebraska transfer brings in a championship-level pedigree and consistent libero play. She put forth a marquee game in the 2018 NCAA quarterfinals, with 19 digs and three assists against No. 3 Illinois. Sophomore Charlotte Cronister looks to build off a rookie campaign that displayed her elite athleticism and knack for making scrappy defensive plays. Should the two stay healthy, NU’s defense will be in great hands.
At the net, outside of Thomas-Ailara, anticipate a rotating cast of players until a starting group emerges. Middle blockers Alana Walker and Desiree Becker are safe bets to start the season-opener against Rutgers, but Davis has struggled to find a consistent pair of middle blockers over the past three seasons. In 2017 the starting spots constantly changed, 2018 allowed Olivia Viscuso and Walker to emerge, and Viscuso’s injury in 2019 gave way to Becker. However, 2021 may be the Tatyana Hardwick coming out party. The redshirt-sophomore has been a project since coming to Evanston, but given how fluid NU’s middle blocker position has been in recent years, it might be time to unleash her elite athleticism on the Big Ten.
We can’t forget about Abryanna Cannon either. After sitting out 2019 because of hip surgery, Cannon hopes to turn back the clock. In 2018, she finished second on the team in kills with 243. Before the arrival of Thomas-Ailara, Cannon and Nia Robinson appeared to be the program’s pillars at outside hitter. Now even Robinson’s playing time could be on a shorter leash with the depth at the position. Barring injuries, upperclassmen Danyelle Williams, Ella Grbac and Hanna Lesiak should all have opportunities to earn playing time at the pins. Healthy competition is a good thing, and it should make Northwestern better.
At setter, Northwestern rosters just two players, and they couldn’t be more different. Junior Kiara McNulty is an excellent backrow setter who lacks the ability to make big plays at the net. The 5-foot-10, defensively gifted setter finds herself in a position battle for the third straight season. The Wildcats welcome top-50 recruit Alexa Rousseau. The 6-foot-3 product chose Northwestern over Stanford, UCLA and Florida to name a few.
In its pandemic-delayed season, Northwestern will face 11 Big Ten teams, playing weekend doubleheaders against each squad (save for the Illinois series). The Wildcats’ abilities to make changes, have short memories and learn from their mistakes will be more crucial than ever. Northwestern will face all four teams that finished behind it in the Big Ten, as well as Michigan State, which has looked unimpressive in its past two trips to Evanston. The ‘Cats should finish 8-2 in those games, which is optimistic given Northwestern’s tendency to play at the level of its competition. Their remaining games are against Illinois and five teams currently ranked in the AVCA top 25. But going on the road this year doesn’t provide the same raucous environments. A trip to Champaign during an Illinois down year or playing host to Michigan could provide an early season win to set the tone for the 2021 campaign. Northwestern continues its upward trajectory on the Big Ten rankings list, finishing eighth in the conference.