Season Recap: Volleyball

By Pat Timlin

Season Statistics

Overall Record: 4-6

Home Record: 3-3

Away Record: 1-3

Leading Attacker: Temi Thomas-Ailara (3.85 K/S on .241%)

Leading Setter: Alexa Rousseau (7.22 A/S in 36 SP)

Leading Defender: Megan Miller (2.95 D/S and .966 Rec%)

Season Overview:

Northwestern’s 2020 season goals centered on the development of Megan Miller, Alexa Rousseau, and Temi Thomas-Ailara– a 1-2-3 punch that could eventually be a top force in the Big Ten. 

However, a COVID-19 outbreak and a pause in team activities cut NU’s season in half. Getting on the court and playing games is the only way a volleyball team can get better together. Timing, communication and trust in one another come with game experience, yet the Wildcats just could not stay on the court.

There were nonetheless some bright spots in the season, starting with the first series against Rutgers. The two most dominant matches Northwestern has played in over two years came at Welsh-Ryan Arena by a team that looked hungry for volleyball. Thomas-Ailara notched an efficient 29 kills to lead all scorers, Alana Walker silenced her doubters by leading all middles with 16 kills and Abryanna Cannon played meaningful (and might I add impressive) volleyball for the first time in two-and-a-half years. Despite no fans in the arena, the ‘Cats were fired up to be on the court together and playing their level of volleyball. 

The ensuing matches would have been a true test of how far NU had come in the long offseason, going against three ranked opponents and in-state rival Illinois. Yet a COVID-19 outbreak within the program was discovered on the bus in Lincoln, and Northwestern ultimately waited almost a month before playing another point. While every other team was getting game experience, the ‘Cats couldn’t even practice.

NU then traveled to West Lafayette and faced a Boilermakers defense that had an answer for everything Northwestern threw at them. The Wildcats left Purdue taking only one set, but more importantly, began to play first-year Alexa Rousseau. She followed up her prolonged debut the following weekend with a 55 assist effort in a five-set loss to Iowa. Rousseau in a full match from start to finish is exactly what ‘Cats fans were waiting to see, and she did not disappoint. The Wildcats took the finale against Maryland 3-2 for their third win of the season, a win that showed NU’s resilience as they came back from down two sets to close out the match, something they’ve struggled with in previous years.

Then Northwestern entered a gray area of the season. Again they’d miss six straight matches, yet this time without a COVID-19 designation, rather just a pause in team activities. Perhaps most importantly, they lost a lot of development against opponents, such as Michigan State and Indiana, teams that NU has to prove they are better than to rise to the top tier of Big Ten volleyball. While no official word was released from NU’s Athletic Department, this particular hiatus took a lot of momentum and team energy away from the Wildcats.

After a Minnesota series that went as expected, the ‘Cats capped off the campaign with a split against Maryland. The biggest takeaways from the finale are rooted in the lineups that Shane Davis put out; notably, the 10 total sets played by both Tatyana Hardwick and Hanna Lesiak. Hardwick is still growing every year, and the Maryland series proved she made a big step in 2021. Lesiak being healthy and getting into rhythm will be extremely crucial as she stays for her COVID year.

The final whistle had blown on the season, yet that wasn’t the end of volleyball news. Four-year starters in Nia Robinson and Alana Walker announced their decisions to transfer to North Carolina and Virginia, respectively. Both consistently led the Wildcats in statistical categories and played key sets. Additionally, NU saw Assistant Coach Kristen Kelsay take over as head coach for the final four games of the season, which raises questions about the future of Shane Davis at Northwestern.

MVP: Temi Thomas-Ailara

It’s clear who Northwestern’s best player is everytime they take the court. Thomas-Ailara capped off her second straight season as Northwestern’s leader in kills (154), while also being second in blocks (19). More importantly, the play of TTA determined how well Northwestern could do. Her ability to take over a match is something Shane Davis and the rest of the team relies on. Other schools were definitely calling her about potentially transferring, but she decided to stay close to home, where she’ll continue to be the cornerstone of this program. As she heads into her third year, being consistent and efficient from match to match is the next step in her legacy as a dominant NU attacker.

Key Contributors: Abryanna Cannon & Megan Miller

From the first match against Rutgers, you could see how excited Shane Davis and crew were to have Cannon back on the court. She provides front and back row attacking ability, another heavy hitter opposite (or alongside) TTA, and a lot of knowledge. At the end of her NU career, she could be on six different season’s rosters in Evanston. In 2021, she led the team in service aces (15), and finished second in both digs (95) and kills (98). While there are a lot of people to be excited about on this upcoming season’s roster, Cannon has to stand at the top.

Megan Miller performed as advertised. She brought poise and consistency to a backrow that needed it. She ended the season second on the team in aces (11) and led the squad in digs (118). Miller found herself wearing the Libero jersey for all 40 sets, and most likely will continue to do so next season.   

First-Year Star: Alexa Rousseau

Since the departure of Taylor Tashima in 2017, Northwestern has been seeking a permanent starting setter. Combinations of an often injured Britt Bommer, grad-transfer Payton Cheng, an out of position Michelle Lee, and defensively oriented Kiara McNulty have made up the setter platoon for the ‘Cats.

Now Shane Davis has found his program’s setter in Alexa Rousseau. 

Coming into the season, Rousseau was a nationally ranked recruit. She chose Northwestern over Stanford, UCLA, Michigan and Florida. It was only a question of when she would be inserted into the starting lineup, not when. The answer came in Iowa after her 55 assist outing that showed consistent playing time over the course of an entire match made Rousseau comfortable and brought out the best play in her. Expect more of the same to come in the upcoming fall season.

While there were a few first-year mistakes sprinkled throughout the campaign, this is only the beginning for the 6-3 setter from Bloomfield Hills, MI.