Volleyball: Wildcats face Rutgers, No. 8 Penn State


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Temi-Thomas Ailara stares at her opponent. The freshman outside hitter will have a big impact on Friday’s game after not playing in the team’s first game against Rutgers.

Carlos Stinson-Maas, Reporter


Northwestern enters this weekend with its worst conference record through 14 games since 2016, with an abysmal .077 winning percentage against Big Ten opponents.

On Friday, the last-place Wildcats will face Rutgers, the second-worst team in the Big Ten. The last time NU (10-16, 1-13 Big Ten) faced the Scarlet Knights (8-17, 2-12), Rutgers won a grueling five-set battle, marking only its second Big Ten victory in program history.

But now, the Cats have an opportunity to take revenge and leapfrog the Scarlet Knights in the standings with a win Friday.

NU with be playing with a more robust roster this time around, as freshman outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara is back from injury. She was sidelined in the second set of the first match against Rutgers, but returned on Nov. 6 against Nebraska. Thomas-Ailara has been back to her usual self since recovering from the injury — she recorded 11 kills in last Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. Thomas-Ailara ranks second in the Big Ten in kills per set and led the team in kills in her first nine conference matches.

The Scarlet Knights have already secured their best Big Ten record ever after sweeping Iowa just six days after their upset over the Cats. Coach Shane Davis said he’s been impressed with Rutgers’s well-rounded play this year.

“They’ve got a lot of international experience on their roster,” Davis said. “They may be young, but they’re experienced players and they play a tough game.”

In NU’s loss to the Scarlet Knights, Davis switched setters midway through the match, replacing sophomore Kiara McNulty with graduate transfer Payton Chang.

Chang has started in every match since, and Davis said she’s proven herself as the starting setter for the Cats.

“The last couple weeks Payton has owned that position,” Davis said. “We’ve had a couple setters battle, but she’s the one driving the ship right now.”

NU is 6-1 all-time against the Rutgers, sweeping the Scarlet Knights in five of those meetings.

No. 8 Penn State, who the Cats will face on Sunday, will present an entirely different challenge.

The Nittany Lions (19-4, 12-2) have statement wins against four ranked opponents this season and figure to be contenders in the NCAA tournament. Their four losses all came to top-15 squads.

Penn State has two players in the top five in the conference in hitting percentage, including Big Ten leader Kaitlyn Hord. The sophomore middle blocker ranks fourth in the nation in hitting percentage and also is tied for fourth in the conference in blocks per set.

NU has fared extremely poorly against ranked opponents this season, failing to win a single set in such games. The Nittany Lions have been nearly perfect against unranked squads, winning all but three sets in those matches.

Although even winning a set against a team like Penn State would be unprecedented this season, Davis said he thinks the Cats can play with the top teams in the country.

“We’ve just gotta find a way to win,” Davis said.

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