A preview of the Illini volleyball team's home matches this weekend against Penn State and Ohio State
No. 4 Penn State (14-2, 5-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (7-9, 3-3 Big Ten), 7 p.m.
No. 17 Ohio State (14-5, 2-5 Big Ten) at Illinois, 2 p.m.
Setting the scene
Another weekend. Another pair of nationally ranked opponents. Such is life in the Big Ten, which has eight members in the current American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25. By the time Ohio State leaves town Sunday, Illinois will have faced six ranked foes in eight Big Ten matches. The Illini are 1-3 against conference Top 25 opponents. ... Friday’s match is the third of at least five Illini matches on BTN this season. ... On Sunday, the team will hold its annual breast cancer awareness match, this year titled Workout a Cure. Youngsters in eighth grade and under who wear pink to the match can work out with UI student-athletes in pre-match mini-clinics. During the match Illini players will wear pink jerseys which previously were auctioned off by the Illini Networkers support group. Nearly $5,000 was raised, with net proceeds going to the Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana.
Illinois has gone 1-1 in each of its first three weekends of the Big Ten race. Coach Kevin Hambly knows that won’t do if his Illini are to become eligible for consideration for the NCAA tournament. Teams must finish the regular season with at least a .500 record to be considered for an at-large bid. “We’ve been splitting on weekends and we need to get some sweeps,” he said. “This young team is starting to figure it out. I like the direction we’re going. But we need the wins, and this is a tough conference to get those in.” ... The Illini are 2-1 in their last three matches, but it could well have been 3-0. In a four-set loss at then-No. 20 Purdue, three sets were decided by two points, and Illinois lost two of those. “Sometimes those are the hardest ones because you know it came down to execution,” Hambly said. “Getting blown out, it hurts, but at least you didn’t have a chance. In these, we had chances to win, so that hurt.” One night later, Illinois displayed its resiliency with a 3-0 sweep. “I was really proud of the way we rebounded and played against Indiana,” Hambly said. ... The Illini’s struggles on offense this season are well documented — and they are still looking to get above .200 in hitting percentage — but they were clicking on all cylinders last Saturday. Illinois hit .378 at Indiana, eclipsing its previous season high of .330 against Iowa. Outside hitters Jocelynn Birks and Liz McMahon, who combined for 22 kills in the three sets, each hit above .400.
About Penn State
The defending Big Ten champions have won five straight since dropping their conference opener to current league leader Michigan State. Penn State’s only other loss this season was at then-No. 6 Texas on Sept. 7. Coach Russ Rose’s team is 3-1 in true road matches. ... No surprise that the Nittany Lions were picked to win the Big Ten in the coaches’ preseason poll. Or that they were No. 2 in the AVCA preseason Top 25. Penn State returned four All-Americans from the 2012 team that reached the NCAA Final Four: AVCA first-teamers Ariel Scott and Micha Hancock, second-teamer Katie Slay and third-teamer Deja McClendon. All except Hancock are seniors. As freshmen, the current seniors played significant roles for a program that won its fourth straight NCAA title. When that streak did not continue — Penn State lost in the Sweet 16 in 2011 and in the national semifinals in 2012 — the current seniors have come under the microscope for their legacy. Hambly views that as unfair. “I think this (senior group) is every bit as competitive (as past Nittany Lions classes),” he said. “I just think the country is stronger than it’s been in the past.” Hambly said that as many as 20 programs currently have a legitimate shot at a national title, compared to “five or six” a half-dozen years ago. “I think they’ve had a great run,” he said. “Deja especially this year has come into her own.” ... Penn State has dominated the all-time series with Illinois 39-9. But since 2010, the teams are 3-3 head-to-head. ... With his next win, Rose will reach 1,106 for his career, tying former UCLA coach Andy Banachowski for second on the all-time career wins list. ... Slay was selected Big Ten Player of the Week, in large measure for her performance against current No. 11 Minnesota. The 6-foot-6 middle blocker matched her career-high in kills with 16 kills while hitting .444. She also recorded a season-high 10 blocks. Hancock was named Big Ten Setter of the Week for the second time in a row.
About Ohio State: When the Big Ten announced its preseason poll, the Buckeyes were nowhere to be found among the top six picks that were made public. Neither did Ohio State have a player selected to the 14-member preseason All-Big Ten team. Yet, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 23 in the AVCA preseason poll and, after opening the season 13-0, rose to as high as No. 12. It’s been a tougher go for Ohio State since then, coach Geoff Carlston’s team losing five of its last six matches. Three of those defeats were 3-0 sweeps, with the lone win coming against co-Big Ten bottom dweller Indiana. ... From 2008 through 2001, Illinois went 9-0 against the Buckeyes, including an NCAA tournament win. The Buckeyes ended that streak last season, winning both matches against the Illini, each in five sets. The 2012 meeting at Huff Hall was particularly painful for Illinois, which won the first two sets but couldn’t wrap up a victory. That was followed one day later by a five-set loss to Penn State in which Illinois led 14-10 in Set 5... Look for Kaitlyn Leary to be spotlighted in the Illini’s scouting report. Entering Wednesday’s match at Northwestern, the senior outside hitter led the Big Ten in kills per set (4.93) and second in points per set (5.27). In two matches against Illinois last season, Leary totaled 31 kills and hit .315 in 73 swings. “She got really loose on us and put up some big numbers,” Hambly said. “We’re hoping we can get them out of system a little bit more than we did last year, keep them off the nets. And I think we’re better defending than we were in the past. But she can get on runs and she has this year.”