Six years later, Davis, Northwestern “turning the corner” in Big Ten

Shane Davis has taken his lumps.

Not that he didn’t expect to, but … 

After winning back-to-back NCAA men’s championships, in 2014 and 2015 at Loyola Chicago, he made the move, 4.6 miles up the Lake Michigan shoreline, to coach the Northwestern women. 

So many questions followed, wondering why and how he would fare on the women’s side. His work was cut out for him.

It was a far cry from now, when the 2022 Wildcats are 17-7, 6-6 in the Big Ten, and holding the No. 30 spot in the NCAA RPI after winning four in a row. 

The good news for Northwestern is that this weekend, win, lose or draw, is that its RPI will likely improve. The bad news is No. 6 Ohio State comes to town on Friday and No. 4 Nebraska shows up Sunday.

But unlike previous years, those two matches are not gimmes for the powerful visitors. No, not in a year in which Northwestern has won at then-No. 7 Minnesota and last week beat then-No. 12 Purdue.

It’s enough for Davis to admit, after some reflection, “yeah, I feel like we’re kind of turning the corner.”

That corner seemed really far away six years ago.

In his first season, in 2016, the Wildcats finished 10-22, 3-17 in the unforgiving Big Ten.

In 2017, they went 14-18, 4-16. 

In early October 2018, we walked around the gorgeous Evanston, Illinois, campus, donning hard hats to examine the renovation progress of Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was obvious that when it was finished it would be one of the best venues anywhere.

And you had to wonder: 

Great arena. Really good coach. All the youth volleyball talent imaginable within a few hundred-miles radius. An academic institution on par with the very best.

It seemed like all the pieces were in place. Except that Northwestern, which last went to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, was in the Big Ten, where getting three times better might mean very little in terms of moving up the ranks.

On that October day in 2018 Northwestern was 10-6 at the time, 0-4 in the B1G. But the Wildcats would finish 16-16, 6-14 in the conference, and maybe the light at the end of the tunnel was not an oncoming train.

But baby steps. 

In 2019, Northwestern went 14-18, 5-15. Progress? No way to tell, because in the COVID-ravaged season of 2020-21, the Wildcats went 4-6, all in the B1G. 

Finally last year you could feel it. Northwestern went 12-19, 7-13 in the conference, It may not seem like much, but the Wildcats finished 10th in the 14-team league, comfortably ahead of the bottom four.

Heading into 2022

During the offseason, there was talk about a great recruiting class. A new sense of optimism in Evanston.

Northwestern opened 6-0 by beating all mid-majors the first two weekends. 

“The first two weekends, we planned it that way, because we knew we had a good freshman class, we had everyone but one player returning, but we knew we had to do something different and be different,” Davis said. “But we didn’t know what that actually looked like, so the first two weekends were so important to us to play different lineups each weekend.”

That included running senior star Temi Thomas-Ailara and freshman Kathryn Randorf at both outside and right side. 

“We were really playing around with a lot of stuff trying to figure out what we wanted to do going into that third weekend,” Davis said. 

And it was in the third weekend, at Washington, when the Wildcats started to get some attention. They beat Cal Poly in four, lost to then-No. 13 Washington in four, and then swept then-No. 24 Pepperdine. And Davis thought to himself, “We’re a pretty good team.”

The last week of pre-Big Ten, Northwestern didn’t let up, beating three other Chicago schools in DePaul, UIC and then Loyola. Worth noting is that Loyola, which this year left the Missouri Valley for the Atlantic 10, is 20-7, 14-0 in the conference.

The Big Ten started out predictably enough when the Wildcats were swept at Wisconsin, but then they went to Illinois and got swept. You have to know they’d like to get that one back. 

“We weren’t good. We just got served off the court,” Davis admitted. Illinois is 4-6 since.

Northwestern coach Shane Davis

And then came the Minnesota match, when Northwestern not only won 25-22, 21-25, 17-25, 25-20, 15-13, it beat a top-10 team on the road for the first time in program history. In the Big Ten, however, the meat grinder doesn’t stop because you won a big match. Two days later the Wildcats lost in four at home to Michigan, an opponent filled with former club teammates from both teams.

Northwestern swept at Rutgers, went to Ohio State and gave the Buckeyes all they could handle but lost in four — 25-23 in both the second and third sets ater winning the first — and then got swept at Maryland and at Nebraska.

Optimism aside, Northwestern was 2-6 in the Big Ten and looking at the same old, same old.

No panic.

“After the Nebraska match, it was like we need to be better at out of system on the left side and we need to set our middle better. And that was it,” Davis said. “If we do those couple of things, it’s a world of difference.”

Sienna Noordermeer back sets for Northwestern teammate Leilani Dodson

A new setter

This would be the time to point out that that road trip was the debut for freshman setter Sienna Noordermeer, a 5-foot-11 product of Los Angeles who had every intention of redshirting this year. But if something happened to junior setter Alexa Rousseau …

Through 18 matches, Rousseau was averaging 10.81 assists, had 81 kills, 21 aces and was averaging 2.28 digs a set. But she got hurt at Ohio State, and Noordemeer had one day to get ready for Maryland and then Nebraska.

They got swept both times, but Davis saw the future.

“She was starting to get it, and it was like from then on it was, ‘Now I’m a setter, now I’m a quarterback.’ Before I just called her an overhead ball distributor,” he said with a laugh. “Now she’s running the show. She’s doing a heck of a job and keeps getting better and better and better.”

This current four-match winning streak started with a four-set victory at Rutgers and then a sweep at Maryland. Northwestern got another victory over a ranked team, beating then-No. 12 Purdue in five as Thomas-Ailara had 25 kills. Last Sunday, the Wildcats swept at Iowa, which brings them into this weekend tied for seventh with Illinois, a game behind Penn State in the win column.

In that stretch, she’s averaged 9.4 assists, has five aces, three blocks and even a couple of kills.

One thing that has helped her is setting to Northwestern’s balanced attack and that starts with Thomas-Ailara, the 6-2 product of Marian Catholic and nearby Glenwood, Illinois, who was a honorable-mention All-American last year. Her full name is Temitayo Oluwatoyin Thomas-Ailara and she’s averaging 4.21 kills and has 362 total, 129 more than teammate Hanna Lesiak. 

“She’s been outstanding this year and I think the biggest thing, and maybe a blessing in disguise, was she played the (2021) Big Ten season with (a knee) injury,” Davis said. “And when the season was over we were able to have the surgery and fix that, but the entire offseason was a recovery and rehab season for her. She wasn’t allowed to jump until into the summer, some time in July, and then it was full go once the preseason started. 

“That gave her body a little bit of a rest and she spent time working on skills, rather than just jumping and attacking and learning the game a little more. That really helped the volleyball IQ piece for her, but she’s also been great for us after 20 points, in crunch-time moments.”

Hanna Lesiak serves

A balanced attack

Lesiak, a fifth-year outside from Frankfort, Illinois, is having a breakout year after battling injuries early in her career. 

“The non-conference was great for her and she established herself as a six-rotation player and she built a ton of confidence in her game along the way and she’s carried that into the Big Ten,” Davis said. Lesiak, like Thomas-Ailara, has another year of eligibilty after this. She’s averaging 2.81 kills and has 22 aces.

Northwestern has three other offensive weapons, including Randorf, the product of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, playing right side for the first tme with 201; Leilani Dodson, a junior middle from LaGrange, Illinois, with 153; and Desiree Becker, a senior middle from DeWitt, Michigan, with 125. 

“This is the first year we’ve had that. Even last year with Temi, we would run drills in practice where we weren’t allowed to set Temi so we could get other people to kill the ball.” 

Becker leads with 93 blocks, 18 solo. Dodson had 68 blocks, 10 solo.

In the past, Davis noted, “If Temi wasn’t killing the ball for us, we were going to struggle. This year is so different because Temi can have an off night and we can still win. Our middles are doing a nice job, we’ve had different leaders in different matches, and that shows good balance.”

Northwestern’s Megan Miller goes all out

Northwestern is also getting a big boost on defense from fifth-year libero Megan Miller. She played two seasons at Nebraska before becoming a Wildcat and the product of Alexandria, Indiana, is playing left-back defense for the first time. She had 30 digs against Purdue and five assists and 18 more digs against Iowa with seven assists. Miller had 18 aces and is averaging 4.29 digs a set for the season.

“That’s a big piece for us, with a balanced team being much better transition and a lot of it is because of her being able to dig the ball for us,” Davis said.

Heading down the stretch

There’s no telling how Northwestern will do the rest of the way. These next two matches are awfully tough.

“If we can defend the home court and this weekend keep it close and steal it somehow, some way, and I think the team feels confident because we were right there last time,” Davis said. “It’ll be a great match either way.”

You have to like the Wildcats’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament. After this weekend they play at Michigan, at Michigan State, at Indiana, and then finish up at home against Penn State and Illinois.

We talked about that walk we took in October, him oozing optimism and me thinking out loud, why not Northwestern? I said to Davis then that it would be good for volleyball and good for the Big Ten if Northwestern could be relevant.

“Even before that, before our walk, when I was going through the interview process and getting an understanding of what Northwestern was,” Davis recalled, asking the same thing. 

He knew that the university shared the vision, the arena was going to be first class, and all the facilities were being upgraded, “and it just started checking so many boxes. At the time it was like, OK there’s a lot of work to do and lot more to go.” Recruiting had to fall into lockstep, which it did. 

And now, four years later, “we’re here, we’re at a time when all the facilities are done and we’ve got the thing kind of rolling.”

Davis paused.

“So, yeah, I feel like we’re kind of turning the corner.”

Temi Thomas-Ailara attacks for Northwestern (all photos courtesy of Northwestern)

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