Volleyball: Northwestern captures first Big Ten win, nearly upsets No. 7 Minnesota


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara aims for a hit. Thomas-Ailara had 16 kills across the Cats’ three-set sweep of Rutgers on Friday.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Northwestern junior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara enjoyed a first set for the ages to start Friday’s matchup against visiting Rutgers, registering nine kills — including four of the team’s final five points — as the Wildcats cruised to a 25-19 first set win.

Even with the relative ease of the first set, the match hardly had the makings of an NU rout. Just six days earlier against Illinois, NU allowed the Fighting Illini to storm back and take the match in five sets, keeping the Cats winless in Big Ten play.

But on this night, NU couldn’t be stopped.

The Cats (6-9, 1-3 Big Ten) staved off the Scarlet Knights (8-7, 0-4) by 25-23 scores in each of the next two sets to seal a sweep and their first Big Ten victory. Thomas-Ailara, who finished the night with a game-high 16 kills — nine more than the next-closest player — and added 11 digs and seven blocks, stayed in the zone from start to finish. 

“Other than the numbers (Temi) was putting up, I looked over and she was playing free and had a big smile on her face,” senior outside hitter Ella Grbac said. “It was fun playing with her tonight because she was doing what she does best.”

While coach Shane Davis praised Thomas-Ailara’s judgment, her performance was so dominant that he didn’t bat an eye when she aimed for high-risk attacks.

“Temi just took some really good swings and she’s just being really smart about the choices she was making up there as an attacker,” Davis said. “There’s a few extreme examples that she tried a little bit and I’m okay with that.”

The Cats felt they weren’t at their best but still found ways to adjust and overcome their shortcomings. 

Davis cited NU’s passing struggles as an area that made Thomas-Ailara’s job more difficult and prevented the Cats from spreading out the Rutgers double block. Redshirt junior outside hitter Hanna Lesiak, a breakout performer in NU’s conference opener against Nebraska, struggled on the offensive end but kept her composure and scored the final kill of the match.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on the past three weeks, just trying to find a way to play consistently and play together for three sets in a row,” Thomas-Ailara said on Friday. “Tonight was a showing of what we’ve been working on.”

NU continued its momentum into its Saturday match against No. 7 Minnesota (8-4, 3-1 Big Ten) by winning the first two sets, but surrendered the last three to split the weekend’s games. 

The Cats played the favored Golden Gophers tightly from the start, sealing a 26-24 opening set on an Grbac block. NU then jumped out to a 5-2 lead and maintained control of the second set, eventually winning 25-19 to get on the brink of its first win against a top-ten opponent since 2015.

After Minnesota took the third set, the Cats had prime opportunities in the fourth set to win another match in front of their home crowd. Instead, NU couldn’t connect on any of its four match points in a frenzied set finale and lost 31-29, then dropped the decisive fifth set 15-7. 

The Cats will follow up this weekend’s homestand with a four-game stretch on the road against Big Ten rivals Maryland, Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. NU was inches away from a perfect weekend and still have a losing record in conference play, but the Cats’ progress through the past couple of weeks is evident.

“Mentally, there’s definitely area for growth, that intensity and confidence between all of us,” Grbac said. “There’s always growth, but I’m happy with where we are.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @john__riker

Related Stories:

Northwestern volleyball prepares to host Rutgers, No. 7 Minnesota over weekend

Northwestern volleyball loses first Big Ten match to No. 12 Nebraska

Fall Sports Roundup: Field hockey continues dominance, while women’s soccer falls short