Illinois' McKenna to square off against Michigan State's Kristen on volleyball court.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — McKenna and Kristen Kelsay shouldn’t have any problem picking their father out of the crowd Friday night at 5,017-seat Jenison Field House.
Bruce Kelsay will be the guy wearing the shirt with a decidedly split personality.
Half orange, to represent one of the dominant school colors of McKenna’s university. Half green for Kristen’s institution of higher learning.
“He went to the tailor’s and sewed one up, so he’s going to be wearing that,” Illinois freshman McKenna Kelsay said. “I’m not sure what my mom (Mary) is going to be wearing yet. ... But my dad was really excited to make that half-shirt to wear.”
When Illinois and Michigan State square off in a Big Ten volleyball match, the parents of the Kelsay sisters will have good reason to express their support for both teams. McKenna is an Illini backup setter and defensive specialist. Senior Kristen is a co-starter at setter for the Spartans.
“They are so excited,” McKenna said. “They’ve been talking about it — we all have been talking about it — for a while.”
No trash talk between the sisters, however. The fellow Wheaton St. Francis High School graduates are too close for that.
“We have a really good relationship,” McKenna said. “We talk about a lot of stuff. She always checks up on me and how I’m doing as a little freshman, but especially these past two weeks. ... She texted me today (Tuesday): “I see you this Friday! I get to play you this Friday!”
And that will be a unique experience for these sisters, who have been teammates but never opponents.
“Basically since I committed (to Illinois), it’s been ‘I can’t wait for that match,’ ” McKenna said. “I think the coolest thing is going to be standing out there and seeing her across the net and just knowing that’s my big sister.”
Illini volleyball preview
Illinois (5-7, 1-1 Big Ten) at No. 9 Michigan State (13-1, 2-0), 6 p.m.
Illinois at No. 14 Michigan (10-3, 0-2 entering Friday’s match versus Northwestern), 6 p.m.
Setting the scene: The Illini are embarking on a stretch of their Big Ten schedule that is road-heavy in the extreme. Beginning Friday, eight of their next 10 conference matches are away from home. Of course, the flip side is that six of Illinois’ final eight Big Ten matches are at Huff Hall. The obvious question: Will the Illini be able to keep their heads above water through this tidal wave of visits to hostile gyms? So far this season, Illinois is 1-3 on opponents’ home courts. “We’re not talking about it too much,” Illini coach Kevin Hambly said. “We’re just going one (match) at a time. ... We don’t want to build in any excuses.” The Big Ten schedule-makers can’t be accused of picking on Illinois. Its travel partner, Northwestern, will play seven of its next 10 on the road. Later this month, Indiana begins a stretch of eight of 10 away from home. Hambly said that when Maryland and Rutgers begin competition in the Big Ten next season, no volleyball team will be scheduled to play more than three consecutive conference matches on the road “because a lot of coaches were complaining about it.”
If Illinois gets into protracted battles this weekend, Jennifer Beltran could return to campus as the program’s career leader in digs. The senior libero enters Friday’s match No. 2 on the all-time list with 1,878 digs and needs 44 to pass record-holder Ashley Edinger (2006-09). ... Look for walk-on freshman Danielle Davis to be in the rotation this weekend. The defensive specialist from Bloomington played the final two sets against Nebraska last Saturday, producing six digs and going 8-for-8 on serve receive. “Davis really stepped up this (past) weekend,” Hambly said. “She’s been stepping up (in practice) for the last couple weeks, and when she finally got her opportunity to perform, she did a great job. So it’s likely we’re going to keep her out there as long as she does the same thing in practice.” ... After attracting two of the largest home crowds in program history last weekend, Illinois ranks fourth in the nation in average home attendance (3,675) and sixth in total home attendance (18,375 for five matches). The Illini drew their second-largest crowd ever (7,061) on Sept 27 at State Farm Center. One day later, 3,476 showed up for a match against Nebraska at Huff Hall — the 16th-largest for a UI home match and 14th-biggest at Huff.
About Michigan State: The Spartans grabbed the attention of the college volleyball world last Friday by stunning then-No. 1 Penn State, on the Nittany Lions’ court, no less. The outcome ended MSU’s 18-match losing streak against Penn State. Two days later, the Spartans handed then-No. 13 Ohio State its first loss of the season, again on the road, in a 3-0 sweep. It’s still early in the Big Ten race, but it appears Michigan State was undervalued in the conference coaches’ preseason poll, which pegged coach Cathy George’s team to finish fifth. “They caught our eye all year, because they’re good,” Hambly said. “But it’s the Big Ten. That stuff happens in the Big Ten, so it’s not a surprise.” ... To put MSU’s accomplishment last weekend in perspective, consider this: Since the start of the 2006 season, the Spartans are one of only two teams to win back-to-back road matches against Penn State and Ohio State (the two typically are schedule partners). The other? The 2011 NCAA runner-up Illini. ... Perhaps MSU’s near-perfect record and recent feats shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Spartans returned 2012 All-Americans Lauren Wicinski (outside hitter) and Kori Moster (libero) along with Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection Halle Peterson (co-starting setter). Moster is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. In addition, MSU added a five-member freshman class ranked seventh in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com. It’s a group that already has produced two starters — outside hitter Chloe Reinig and middle blocker Allyssah Fitterer — as well as middle blocker Autumn Christenson, who has seen time in the rotation. ... The Illini will be facing the AVCA National Player of the Week in this match. Wicinski received that honor, as well as the Big Ten Player of the Week Award, after totaling 33 kills, 11 digs and four service aces in the wins at Penn State and Ohio State. Last season, her first in the Big Ten after transferring from Northern Illinois, the senior had 20- and 22-kill matches against Illinois.
About Michigan: The Wolverines faced the same opponents last weekend as their state rival but, unlike the Spartans, returned home 0-2. After making its first-ever appearance in a Final Four last year, Michigan was picked to finish third in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll. The Wolverines have been ranked as high as No. 7 this season. ... If the Wolverines defeat Northwestern on Friday, coach Mark Rosen would be going for his 300th career win at Michigan when the Illini visit. He enters the weekend 298-180 in his 15th season at the U-M helm and 504-217 in his 22nd year as a head coach. ... Like the Spartans, Michigan keeps its middle blockers busy by running numerous slide plays, although not at the extremely fast pace as Michigan State. Hambly compared both team’s attacks to the type run by San Diego, which beat the Illini in four sets on Sept. 7. “We’ve seen that, but we’re going to have to be prepared for a Big Ten version of that, which will be even tougher,” he said. ... For Illinois right-side hitter Liz McMahon and Michigan setter Lexi Dannemiller, this will be the fifth matchup of former high school teammates. McMahon’s Illini have won three of the previous four. The juniors are graduates of Lakota West in suburban Cincinnati. Dannemiller ranks fifth in the Big Ten in assists per set.