Northwestern Volleyball Season 2021 Review

When we last checked in on Northwestern volleyball just over a month ago, the Wildcats were sitting at 10-13 overall with a 5-7 record in Big Ten play. It wasn’t anything fancy, but they were still in the middle of it all.

Now the NOW season has come to an end. It ended on November 27 with a 3-2 win over Michigan State. That win meant the ‘Cats closed their 2021 season with a record 12-19. They finished with an unlucky 7-13 record in conference play.

Simply put, 2021 was not the season people were hoping for under fourth-year head coach Shane Davis. Davis arrived at Northwestern after leading the Loyola-Chicago men’s volleyball team to two national championships in 2014 and 2015, but largely failed to match the success he had at Rogers Park here in Evanston.

Close losses were an overarching theme in the Wildcats’ 2021 campaign, starting in the preseason, when the Northern Colorado ‘Cats fell 3-2. Just a week later, they fell twice with a final score of 3-2, once to New Mexico state and once to Arizona. Northwestern held a 2-1 lead against New Mexico state, but saw it slip away in five sets.

The Wildcats suffered another 3-2 loss before conference play turned, this time at the hands of DePaul. They were just a few points away from beating the Blue Demons, but eventually fell 19-17 in the final set.

Then came conference play. Northwestern took its first conference win after three games, when the ‘Cats defeated Rutgers in three straight sets. The next night, they had the huge chance to beat No. 7 Minnesota, but they came up just short again. NU led 2-0 in sets against the Golden Gophers, but lost set three 25-18, set four 31-29 and set five 15-7.

That heartthrob seemed to set the tone for the rest of Northwestern’s conference games. When we talk about ranked conference opponents, it’s important to note that the Wildcats have failed to beat a top 25 opponent all season. After getting close to the Golden Gophers, the ‘Cats never came within one set of beating a ranked opponent for the rest of the year. They fell once to Nebraska, twice to Minnesota, once to Penn State, once to Purdue, once to Ohio State, and twice to Wisconsin.

After their first loss to Minnesota, NU largely bounced back and forth between the win and loss column. The Wildcats were never able to string together a win streak of more than one game during Big Ten play. Instead, they suffered multiple losing streaks, including a five-game loss streak that stretched from November 13 to November 26.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. The ‘Cats finally broke that streak of losses with a hard-fought 3-2 win against Michigan State in their final game of the year. Northwestern led 2-1 in sets, losing the fourth before closing the fifth with a score of 15-13.

Now that their season is over, Northwestern volleyball has one more honor to celebrate. Junior Temi Thomas-Ailara received First Team All-Big Ten status on December 1, adding to an already impressive resume.

With Thomas-Ailara likely to return for her senior season next year, the ‘Cats will likely try to build her skills. It is unclear whether libero Megan Miller or outside hitter Ella Grbac – both seniors – will return for another year. Senior setter Kiara McNulty has played her last game at the Welsh Ryan-Arena and will graduate later this year.

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