Illini don't let up in sweeps

Illini don't let up in sweeps

CLEVELAND — Chris Tamas had a message for his team after a pair of top 25 wins against Colorado and Washington last weekend in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

The Illinois coach texted his team after the win against the Huskies not to get complacent. The target on their back only got bigger, there’s always room to keep improving and each and every practice and match is another chance to prove what kind of team they want to be this season.

The No. 11 Illini (7-0) took that to heart Friday on the opening day of the Cleveland State Invitational. Illinois jumped on both Bowling Green and Cleveland State for a pair sweeps — taking down the Falcons 25-18, 25-15, 25-13 in the morning before a 25-13, 25-6, 25-16 win against the Vikings in the nightcap.

“There were times it would have been really easy for us to let up,” Illinois outside hitter Jacqueline Quade said. “I think we did a really good job of keeping our foot on the gas and finishing out games when we needed to.

“I think it just takes a lot of focus on our side of the net. In matches like that, it’s easy to forget what we’re working on. I think we really did a good job of focusing on ourselves and still finding ways to improve and keeping the pressure on when it was pretty tough mentally.”

Illinois jumped on both Bowling Green and Cleveland State early. The Illini relied on a dominant performance by Megan Cooney in their first match of the day (14 kills) before using a balanced attack with Cooney, Quade and Ali Bastianelli (36 combined kills) to take down the Vikings.

“You don’t want to let any team, really, think they can start hanging with you,” Tamas said. “If you’re able to create that separation early, you’re able to set the tone and just say, ‘Hey, we’re not messing around.’

“It puts them to feel like they have to make a perfect play to get a point on us. I feel like we responded to everything they threw at us. We played some really nice floor defense when our block wasn’t there, and it was a good match all around defensively.”

The balanced attack against Cleveland State is what Tamas would prefer all the time. Quade led Illinois with 16 kills, Cooney and Bastianelli had 10 apiece and Beth Prince finished with seven. Better first contact allowed Illini setter Jordyn Poulter had 72 assists for the two matches combined.

“Our passing was super solid,” Quade said. “That just opens up everything for everyone. When our offense is unpredictable, it’s really hard for teams to stop any of us. Solid passing really showed in our hitting numbers as well.”

A wicked run at the service line by Taylor Kuper helped in the sweep of Cleveland State. The Illini freshman served 13 straight points — including three aces — to end the second set and then served the first two points of the decisive third set.

“You hit a float serve like she does, and it’s like a knuckleball in baseball,” Tamas said. “The thing just moves all over the place. It makes it very difficult for passers to handle. She cut down on some of her errors from last weekend, which is even better.

“That was an area we cleaned up on a lot of errors. We still had a handful of errors, but the ones we missed were OK. We did a nice job from the service line (Friday).”

Illinois will wrap up play in Cleveland with a 10 a.m. Saturday match against UC Irvine. As well as the Illini played in their first two matches of the tournament, the challenge is playing just as consistently against the Anteaters.

“You always look back on film,” Tamas said. “Maybe there’s 10 plays we don’t like. Are there five plays in there that address the same thing? (Friday) morning it was first contact. It’s always evolving and always going to depend on what team you’re paying. … You have to make sure you stay engaged in every single contact and every single play, and I thought we did that great (Friday).”