Volleyball: Northwestern hopes to continue upward trajectory


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Senior middle hitter Alana Walker records a kill. Walker is among five seniors who will play in their final matches for the Wildcats this weekend.

Peter Warren, Reporter

Coach Shane Davis’ first three years at the helm of the Northwestern program have been fairly similar. The Wildcats performed well during their non-conference slate before faltering to the bottom of the loaded Big Ten standings.

However, there has been steady improvement each season, creeping from three conference wins in 2016 to six in 2018 and a .500 overall record.

Now, in Davis’ fourth year, NU hopes to take another step.

Last year’s Cats were one of the youngest teams in the country, featuring no seniors and only four juniors. All 17 players from 2018 return with another year of experience, along with five newcomers to the program. Leading the returners are junior outside hitter Nia Robinson and junior middle hitter Alana Walker.

Robinson led NU in points, points per set, kills and kills per set in 2018, with a 26-kill performance in a win over Iowa being a season highlight. The Indianapolis native was also the Cats’ lone representative on the Big Ten’s Foreign Tour team that visited Japan earlier this summer. She had 32 kills in six games while also traveling throughout Japan.

“With this trip, it was great because we got to compete and still work on our craft, but we also got to experience life in Japan,” Robinson told The Daily last month. “We would talk to the players after almost every match, we would meet with them and communicate and learn about their lives and they would learn about ours.”

Walker was the only NU player to start in all 32 matches in 2018. She also started all 32 matches as a freshman. The Chicago native led the team with 125 blocks and averaged more than two kills per set.

For the first time during Davis’ tenure, the program has picked up a graduate transfer. Setter Payton Chang will play her final season of college eligibility with the Cats after four years at Stanford. While with the Cardinal, Chang played on both the volleyball and beach volleyball teams.

“Our staff is incredibly excited to have Payton join our Wildcat family,” Davis said in a statement announcing the transfer last month. “We believe she will be a phenomenal addition to our team, bringing the leadership and experience of winning on the highest level to help us continue our pursuit of winning on a conference and national level.”

With the volleyball team — which won the 2016 and 2018 NCAA Championships while she was there — Chang was a backup setter and serving specialist before redshirting her senior year.

For the beach volleyball team, she was a three-year starter, spending a significant amount of time in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions. She won 33 games over three seasons.

Chang is competing against junior Britt Bommer and sophomore Kiara McNulty for the starting spot. Neither Bommer nor McNulty were able to secure a starting spot for the entire 2018 season, with Bommer earning 18 starts and McNulty grabbing 14.

Among the four freshmen on the team, outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara — who was an Under Armour All-American as a senior — could potentially be a key cog right away.

Even with a lot of potential for a successful season, it will not come easily for NU. The Big Ten is the best conference in college volleyball with seven teams ranked in the preseason top 25 and four in the top six. As a result, Big Ten coaches predicted the Cats to finish 12th in the conference.

NU opens the 2019 season this weekend in Oxford, Ohio, facing off against South Carolina-Upstate, Virginia Tech and host Miami of Ohio at the Miami Best Western Sycamore Inn Invitational.

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