Cooney, Illini finish off another unbeaten weekend

Cooney, Illini finish off another unbeaten weekend

CLEVELAND — Megan Cooney moved to outside hitter out of necessity in Illinois’ opening weekend in Colorado. She got more productive from that spot as the Illini started the season with three wins, but it wasn’t her most efficient volleyball.

Shifting back to opposite the last two weekends yielded both productivity and consistency. Cooney finished this weekend’s Cleveland State Invitational with 39 kills in three more Illinois wins. That included a match-high 15 kills — with zero errors — as the No. 11 Illini (8-0) took down UC Irvine 25-14, 25-13, 25-23 on Saturday morning.

“It was such a relief to get back on the right side,” Cooney said. “I like the outside, too. I’m just was not as comfortable out there. It’s possible for me to have to go back to the outside and I’m ready for that, but it is nice to be back on the right where I’m the most comfortable for now.”

Cooney’s 39 kills in Illinois’ three straight sweeps in Cleveland came with just five total errors on 69 swings. Saturday’s perfect hitting performance came with Illinois’ attack in system more than out of it and a combined effort from the Illini’s front row players. Almost half of Jordyn Poulter’s 34 assists came on Cooney’s kills, and middles Ali Bastianelli and Ashlyn Fleming were effective decoys.

“Jordyn was able to get me one-on-one a lot by setting from one side of the court all the way back to me on the right side,” Cooney said. “Ali and Ashlyn were really selling the middle (attack) and keeping (UC Irvine’s) middles penned up with them so I had one-on-one. That was so helpful from my end swinging.”

Cooney emerged last season as a true freshman as Illinois’ top option at opposite. Her consistency at that spot — both in the attack and as a blocker — is what has continued to stand out for Illini coach Chris Tamas.

“She makes really good decisions,” Tamas said. "It’s not always ending up in a kill — (Saturday) it did — but if she doesn’t get a kill she puts the other team in a tough position to turn a point on us. We like using her a lot.

“She puts teams back on their heels defensively. She did that the whole week. She puts up a big block and is able to set up good defense behind the block or stuff the ball if she gets one.”

The Cleveland State Invitational marked Illinois’ third straight weekend on the road. That schedule accomplished what Tamas wanted — challenges on the road turned into wins and an RPI boost. Now the Illini return home.

Illinois will face Northern Iowa at 5 p.m. on Sept. 14 at Huff Hall before playing Lipscomb and No. 14 Creighton at noon and 7 p.m., respectively, on Sept. 15.

“We hit all time zones on this road trip — other than ours,” Tamas said. “To do that with all the travel and start of school and stay focused and locked in is a good sign. I told the team, ‘Your biggest challenge is coming up next weekend to try to defend home court against teams that are trying to do the same we just did.’ ”