Despite an up-and-down season, Northwestern (16-16, 6-14 Big Ten) finished the year with the team’s best record since 2014. The Wildcats also won six conference games, the most in a single year during coach Shane Davis’ tenure. With NU’s concluding this past weekend, The Daily’s volleyball writers convened to put the 2018 campaign in perspective.
1. What is the main takeaway from the 2018 season?
Andy Marquardt: The Cats entered their second-consecutive season with a top-25 recruiting class in the country. NU had high hopes for improvement, and, in large part, delivered. Despite a tough start to conference play in which seven of their first eight opponents were nationally ranked, the Cats finished out the season winning six of their last twelve conference matches. During that stretch, the Cats swept Ohio State for the first time in years and had impressive road victories against Iowa and the Buckeyes.
Manasa Pagadala: The Cats definitely had a difficult start to the season, especially when they started playing Big Ten teams and had eight consecutive losses. But the season has been all about improvement and training a very young team to square up against tough opponents. The season really had a turning point after their first two wins against Michigan State and Iowa. They boosted their aggression with attacking and tried new lineups to give second-time opponents a better fight. Each loss was a learning experience, and some players truly shined when tested. It was nice to see freshman players like outsider hitter Abryanna Cannon and libero Michelle Lee step up to the challenge and show consistent improvement from the first game to the last.
2. Where did NU show its biggest improvement throughout the season?
Marquardt: A major one over the course of the season was that in the second half of conference play, NU began to win the games it was supposed to win, a testament to the growth and development of the program throughout the year. The Cats dropped early matches against Indiana (16-15, 7-13) and Iowa (15-16, 7-13), two programs very similar to NU. By the time the Cats faced these programs later in the season, however, they were able to take care of business and come away with victories. This wasn’t an accident, but evidence of the leaps NU took as the season progressed.
Pagadala: The main improvement can be seen from their Big Ten opener to their final game. To win against Indiana, a team NU struggled to defeat in the beginning of the season, a team has to strive for genuine improvement in performance. In the final game of the campaign, a 3-1 victory over the Hoosiers, the Cats ended with 18.5 blocks, the highest in a single game since 2016 against Lipscomb. Additionally, they racked up the fifth-most block assists in all of NU history and sophomores setter Britt Bommer, sophomore outside hitter Nia Robinson and sophomore middle hitter Alana Walker all had game-high assists, kills, and blocks, respectively. Teams like Iowa and Indiana are also young which shows that the Cats can deliver a resilient performance when faced with a worthy opponent. Even against highly ranked teams like Penn State and Michigan, the statistics show the aggression that all the players put forth. It took their first victory to gain confidence and from there, the team really put forth their best effort for every game.
3. How can the Cats make continue their rise from the bottom of the Big Ten heading into next year?
Marquardt: The Cats this year were almost entirely comprised of underclassmen. Without a single senior on the roster, and only four juniors, NU had one of its youngest teams in years. The Cats’ youth gave them an opportunity in 2018 for impact freshman such as Cannon to gain exposure to Big Ten play, and take impressive steps in their attacking and blocking. With the experience gained this year, NU will look to continue to improve through its core of underclassmen, who will have another year to practice together and prepare for daunting Big Ten opponents like Illinois and Minnesota.
The Cats’ 2019 recruiting class is highlighted by Temi Thomas-Ailara, an Illinois native who was just selected to represent Team East for the 2018 Under Armour All-America match by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Thomas-Ailara is one of four recruits that will look to improve NU’s program next season.
Pagadala: With a freshmen-heavy team, it’s necessary to expose them to the competition so they can experience a challenging environment and learn how to approach a match. Head Coach Shane Davis mentioned that this season is about “molding a young team” and “trying to play off each player’s strengths and weaknesses on the court.” As these new players faced off against Big Ten opponents, they optimized their aggression and were able to accumulate higher attacking and blocking numbers over time. Next year, with a year under their belt and more freshmen talent on the team, the Cats will have a better game plan for their approach against highly-ranked Big Ten teams.
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