Northwestern women's volleyball, seen here in 2019 celebrating, has brought their season back from the dead. Now, still facing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, they'll be taking on a tougher schedule than ever before. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern 

After months of training without games, Northwestern volleyball swept the court last weekend to kick off their season with a 3-0 victory against Rutgers. Even with an abbreviated, conference-only schedule and adjustments to almost every aspect of their training, a solid season opener may foreshadow a successful season for the ‘Cats.

After almost a year of postponement, the entire Northwestern athletic department is finally back. December saw the start of a winter season when 18 of Northwestern’s 19 varsity teams will attempt to compete.

Of course, no sport has gotten off easy from the COVID-19 virus. The ’Cats have now had two successive matches postponed due to concerns, one internal issue against Nebraska and one external issue from Michigan. With two weeks off and a team itching to get back on the court, what can ’Cats fans expect from this season? Let’s set it up.

Season Explanation:

Like every fall sport except football, Big Ten Volleyball faced the unique challenge of organizing a schedule after postponing their season. Other Power 5 conferences were still able to play in the fall, complicating national rankings as schools from the ACC, SEC and Big 12 have fall victories under their belt. Schools from these conferences will use the winter and spring to play more conference-only games or make up games that were postponed or cancelled, but the Big Ten is just beginning.

The abbreviated Big Ten season will include 22 conference-only matches, where teams will play each other in back-to-back matchups on Friday and Saturday in the same location. This format reduces travel while ensuring teams get to play multiple times.

Northwestern’s Schedule

The strength of the conference has not diminished while Big Ten play has been on hold. Six Big Ten teams are included in the season’s initial AVCA Division 1 Women’s Top 25 Poll, with Wisconsin (2-0, 2-0) in the No. 1 spot. After a postponement for their matchups against No. 5 Nebraska (2-0, 2-0) and No. 21 Michigan, the Wildcats still have a tough couple weeks ahead of them. A conference-only schedule creates a hard road ahead, as the Wildcats prepare to face other highly ranked opponents, including No. 7 Minnesota, No. 9 Penn State and eventually, Michigan.

While the season has only just begun, the pandemic continues to dominate every headline. The ‘Cats were unable to play in their scheduled matchup against Nebraska this past weekend after being forced to cancel due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. It has not yet been announced whether this match will be rescheduled, but this seems to confirm that the pandemic may continue to be one of the conference’s biggest opponents this season.

Wildcat Preview:

Practicing throughout the pandemic and navigating a cancelled season was challenging, as Northwestern volleyball was forced to change almost every aspect of their normal training. Head Coach Shane Davis claims the time off offered unique opportunities to practice in ways previous busy schedules would not have allowed.

“We’ve been able to slow cook our training a little bit and focus on the tiny details of our game,” Davis said. A postponed season also left room for previously redshirted players like outside hitter Abryanna Cannon and outside hitter Hanna Lesiak to better integrate themselves back onto the team.

“It’s allowed them to come back slowly, healthy and carefully, and acclimate to the group,” Davis said. After returning almost all top outside hitters from last year, the ‘Cats will lean on their senior leadership to pave the way during this unusual season.

Sophomore Outside Hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara

A huge breakout season for Temi Thomas-Ailara confirms her to be one of the biggest players to watch this year. Thoman-Ailara’s stats in her 2019 season spoke for themselves with 24 double-digit kill games, 398 total kills and four Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. She earned AVCA All-Region Honors, received second team All-Big Ten honors and was one of eight players selected to the 2019 Big Ten All-Freshman team as well. Her dominance will be crucial for the ‘Cats as they head toward their tough conference-only schedule.

Senior Outside Hitter Nia Robinson

Northwestern senior hitter Nia Robinson looks to serve during a game last year. Robinson, part of the senior core for the team this year, will look to finish her captaincy in stride and style. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

Team captain Nia Robinson will surely continue to lead the team both on and off the court this season. With 369 total kills last season, Robinson ranked 10th in the Big Ten and second on the team. She finished the season averaging 3.38 kills per set. Coach Davis emphasized the impact Robinson’s leadership has had on the team this past year, as she organized Zoom workouts, training sessions and volleyball drills for her teammates throughout quarantine.

Senior Middle Hitter Alana Walker

Northwestern senior middle hitter Alana Walker gets hyped up before a match last season. Walker will be looking to finish a fantastic Northwestern career this season. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

Alana Walker is looking to continue her dominance in her final season in purple. She led the team in blacks last year, with 101, and notched 237 kills. As a member of this strong senior class, Walker will continue to lead the ‘Cats this season, making an impact in their first matchup against Rutgers with a .529 hitting percentage and 11 kills.

Junior Setter Kiara McNulty

Junior Kiara McNulty will be playing a big role this season as she secures her spot as an upperclassman leader on the team. Starting the season with 30 assists and 11 digs and a career-high three blocks in the first matchup against Rutgers, McNulty continues to carve out a space for herself in the starting lineup. She was second on the team with 270 assists last season and had a six-game streak of 15 or more assists.

Hard-hitters in both rows will guarantee an interesting season for the ‘Cats. Counting on a roster that boasts this much senior leadership and fresh talent, Northwestern fans can look forward to exciting matches in the weeks ahead.