Volleyball: Miscues, offensive errors dominate Northwestern’s loss against Michigan


Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

Temi Thomas-Ailara. The senior outside hitter recorded 17 kills against Michigan on Saturday.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

Welsh-Ryan Arena grew increasingly electric Saturday as Northwestern and Michigan battled for control in the fourth set. 

One long, back and forth play near the end of the set had fans’ eyes glued to the court. When junior middle blocker Leilani Dodson delivered a kill to seal the point, the crowd leapt up and the bench was in celebration mode. 

Dodson, who totaled six kills and recorded a .357 hitting percentage, was one of several Wildcats with a strong individual performance against the Wolverines. But a mix of miscommunication, execution errors and a sluggish first two sets led NU (12-4, 1-3 Big Ten) to fall to Michigan (12-2, 3-1 Big Ten) in four sets. 

“We learned that we can’t start off slow,” senior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara said. “We have to pick it up throughout the match.”

The Cats stumbled in their return to play after a historic upset over No. 7 Minnesota on Wednesday. Michigan tallied the first two points of the set, gaining a lead it would never relinquish.

The first set laid the groundwork for the Wolverines’ dominance during the rest of the matchup, as they outpaced NU in hitting and kill percentage. Thomas-Ailara said Michigan played well through the first two sets, while the Cats didn’t compete to their potential.

Among other offensive woes, NU also committed several errors, including sending the ball out of bounds repeatedly. Coach Shane Davis viewed miscues and offensive failures as central to the loss.

“We had balls dropping, miscues on balls — just easy stuff that we couldn’t execute,” Davis said.

NU notched the first two points of the second set, but the Wolverines battled back for the lead. The competitors traded points through the middle of the set, but Michigan began to cruise as the Cats committed pivotal errors once again. 

Though the third set was a similar back-and-forth battle, it was NU who took control this time. The Cats led by four at multiple points during the set and managed to ward off the Wolverines as they narrowed the lead. Fifth-year outside hitter Hanna Lesiak sealed the victory, finishing the set with back to back kills. 

Davis said taking care of the ball was key to maintaining momentum in the third set. Getting NU’s middle blockers more involved helped, too, he said. 

The Cats’ confidence buoyed them into the fourth set. NU looked at ease, jumping out to an eight-point lead early on. But, after a timeout and a challenge to a call on the court, Michigan looked like a new team. 

The Wolverines surged ahead with a 7-1 run near the end of the set. While the Cats rallied to force set point, it wasn’t enough. Michigan finished the matchup with three straight points for a 3-1 victory. 

The shift in momentum was difficult, Davis said. 

“What was kind of disappointing was having a big lead like we did in set four, and then (taking) the foot off the gas pedal,” Davis said. 

Thomas-Ailara said Michigan’s outside hitters and middle blockers posed challenges in the set. Their players were good at moving, she said, which pushed the Cats’ middle blockers to really think about where they were going in the fourth set. 

Now 1-3 in Big Ten play, NU returns to competition against Rutgers on Friday. Ahead of the match-up, Thomas-Ailara said she expects the Cats to look inward.

“We’re going to focus on having our team identity from point one — making sure that we’re engaged, ready to play from point one, set one,” Thomas-Ailara said.

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Twitter: @charvarnes11

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