Welsh brings spark to highlight-filled Illinois volleyball season

Welsh brings spark to highlight-filled Illinois volleyball season

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois volleyball had lost three of its last four matches, including one to Wisconsin, when it traveled to Madison, Wis., for a rematch with the Badgers on Oct. 13.

Running out of substitutions late in the third set against Wisconsin — after splitting the first two — might have been the trigger for another loss. Playing 5-foot-8 defensive specialist Caroline Welsh in the front row as the set went to extra points certainly increased the degree of difficulty against the Badgers.

The Illini staved off eight Wisconsin set points for a 35-33 set victory and ultimately put together a four-set win against the Badgers. It was the first of what's now 17 straight wins as the Illini (32-3) prepare to leave today for Minneapolis and the Final Four ahead of Thursday's 8 p.m. national semifinal match against Nebraska (28-6).

"We had lost three of the four previous matches," Illinois senior setter Jordyn Poulter said. "I don't think anyone was in the mood to be beaten again. I think it was a conscious decision made by every single person on the floor and on the bench we were going to do everything in our power to win that set.

"Having your DS in the front row and only having two blockers go up against their full three hitters, that's a really tough thing to do. We showed a lot of perseverance, and I think that really carried with us through the rest of the Big Ten and I think it's stuck with us now."

That final point in the third set at Wisconsin wound up one of Big Ten Network's top 40 plays of the regular season, checking in at No. 24. Illinois was featured seven times in the top 40, and a common thread throughout was some spectacular floor defense.

After rotating out of the front row in Madison, Welsh kept the Illini's set point in the third alive with a diving, one-handed pass behind her to Poulter, who delivered a pass from one knee to Jacqueline Quade for the winning kill.

Welsh was featured in two more of the top 40 plays. She hit the floor for a dig against Lipscomb in the Illini Classic on Sept. 15 that turned into a kill when the overpass landed just inside the tape in the far left corner on the Bison side of the court. The junior out of Marietta, Ga., also made a one-handed dig at Purdue that led to a Quade kill that was instrumental during the Illini's fourth-set rally to finish off the Boilermakers on the road on Sept. 21.

Defense — particularly in the back row — has been a point of emphasis for Illinois all season. The Illini knew what they had up front with Ali Bastianelli (the program's all-time blocks leader) and Poulter (who has more career blocks than any other Illini setter) defensively. Same with Poulter and her litany of options offensively.

"You need to have both," Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. "You can't just have a high-powered offense and hope your defense shows up one day."

Illinois' back-row play and floor defense is something Tamas said he might be most proud about his team this season. That's especially true given the Illini aren't exactly loaded with experience in those positions.

Welsh has the most in her second season playing full time as a defensive specialist. Quade is in her first season playing a full six rotations, Morgan O'Brien played as a freshman in 2017 but is in her first season as full-time libero, and Taylor Kuper is a freshman.

"Everyone's role is important out there," Tamas said after O'Brien, Kuper and Welsh combined for 30 digs during Saturday's Elite Eight victory against Wisconsin. "You cannot get this far and have a weak link in your game. A lot of that focus was on that unit because they were young.

"Caro and Kupe have really just upped their game, and they're really good in big moments. Mo allows them to have those moments, too, because you can't serve Mo, either. It's just one of those things where I don't think we have many weaknesses in that game, and we're able to come up with big plays in big moments."

More magical moments

Caroline Welsh wasn't the only Illinois volleyball player to garner some love in BTN's top plays of the regular season. Here are three others:

Jordyn Poulter

 

VS. NO. 7 PENN STATE, NOV. 10

What happened: The Nittany Lions made a number of spectacular saves in the third set of the top-10 showdown at Huff Hall. All it took to take the wind out of their sails was a no-look, one-handed, over-the shoulder dump by Poulter that helped the Illini win the set — and the match.

Beth Prince

VS. NO. 12 PURDUE, NOV. 24

What happened: Prince hustled to keep a play alive — sending a pass back into play while leaning over the scorer's table — and after a pancake dig by Morgan O'Brien and one-handed set by Jordyn Poulter, got a tip kill to fall in the first set of the Illini's four-set win in their regular-season finale.

Jacqueline Quade

VS. LIPSCOMB, SEPT. 15

What happened: The Bison handled Quade's first swing on an overpass, only for another overpass to go right back to the Illini outside hitter for a second try. Lipscomb libero Ashley Maher had no chance on Quade's next swing — a familiar feeling for Illinois' opponents this season.

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