Volleyball: Wildcats search for first Big Ten win in weekend matches against Rutgers, No. 7 Minnesota


oshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Leilani Dodson communicates to her teammates in the Wildcats’ match against then-No. 12 Nebraska. The Cats will host Rutgers and No. 7 Minnesota this weekend in search of their first Big Ten win.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Since teams at the top of national rankings pack Northwestern’s conference schedule, Friday’s match against Rutgers, a squad also looking for its first Big Ten win, might seem like a needed respite. 

That’s not how the Wildcats are approaching it.

“Every team in the Big Ten is pretty good,” junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara said. “And in a lot of the games that we’re playing, there are things you can learn from each match.”

The Cats (5-8, 0-2 Big Ten) took in-state rival Illinois to five sets a couple days after winning their first set against then-No. 12 Nebraska since 2013. But they’ll have two opportunities to get in the Big Ten win column when they host Rutgers (8-5, 0-2) and No. 7 Minnesota (7-3, 2-0) on back-to-back nights.

“Rutgers, they’re better than they’ve been in a while, they have a great staff and they play hard,” coach Shane Davis said. “We have to be on our A-game and I know it’s gonna be a tough match. And after that, we’ll talk about Minnesota.”

After playing competitively against favorite Nebraska to start its Big Ten slate, NU nearly knocked off Illinois on the road. The Cats took the first set by a razor-thin margin, 25-23, but dropped two straight sets — both by the score of 25-17 — to fall behind the Fighting Illini. 

NU staged a furious comeback bid, rebounding to win the fourth set 25-21 and battling to within 7-9 in the deciding fifth set. Illinois won six of the next eight points to seal the victory, and while the Cats left Champaign without the win, Davis said he saw progress in NU’s second conference match.

“Against Nebraska, we missed on a couple key opportunities in the first two sets,” Davis said. “We did a much better job against Illinois of capitalizing on opportunities.”

While most of this season’s core consists of upperclassmen, few of those contributors came into this year with a wealth of in-game experience. Redshirt junior outside hitter Hanna Lesiak has emerged as one standout performer after missing the majority of two seasons.

One of the players with the benefit of experience on her side is sophomore middle blocker Leilani Dodson, who attended Nazareth Academy in La Grange for high school but played her first year at BYU. After a standout first season that culminated in a Sweet Sixteen appearance, Dodson decided to come home and transfer to NU. 

“The academics here are fabulous,” Dodson said. “That was a huge draw for me, and then just being able to play in the Big Ten and at a school that is up and coming.”

So far, Dodson’s transition from the West Coast Conference to the Big Ten has been a natural one. Dodson had double-digit kills in each of the Cats’ conference matchups and has served as NU’s slide attack specialist. Thomas-Ailara highlighted Dodson’s aptitude for blocking and covering ground as welcome additions to this year’s team.

Dodson has also become a central part of the team’s culture, no small feat for a transfer. 

“She’s been adjusting pretty easily,” Davis said. “She’s got a good connection and good relationship with everybody on the team. Sometimes that’s tough as a transfer, but that says a lot about the team and about her.”

As a member of a BYU squad that won 17 of its 18 regular season matches, Dodson brings a winning pedigree to Evanston. And despite the early hole the Cats find themselves in, she’s confident that wins are a couple plays away. 

“We’re so close to winning matches,” Dodson said. “So once we get there, just winning the big matches and everything along the way, it’s super fun.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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