Staff writer Jeff Huth's review and preview of all things Illinois:
One to watch
7 p.m. Friday vs. Penn State
At Huff Hall
The nation's No. 1 team comes to town with a 52-match winning streak.
Sound familiar? In 2004, No. 1 Southern California entered the title match of the State Farm Illini Classic with an NCAA-record 52 consecutive victories.
If what happened on that momentous night is repeated Friday, it will send shock waves through the sport from coast to coast. If nothing else, the visit of mighty Penn State to Huff Hall is a reminder of that improbable and oh-so- memorable five-set Illini triumph against the Trojans four years ago.
Not that UI coach Don Hardin wants his current players – none of whom were part of that momentous 2004 victory – thinking about a repeat of history. Or even much about that juggernaut on the other side of the net.
"To give ourselves our best shot at winning, we know what our mentality has to be, and that mentality has nothing to do with our opponent," he said. "If we try to get overmotivated, the times we've done that has spelled disaster. We just have to maintain our poise and be steady."
That recipe, combined with the most talent Illinois has put on the floor in years, has translated into a No. 17 national ranking, a 19-6 record and a share of second place in the Big Ten at 10-4.
All of which pales in comparison to the Nittany Lions. Not that the Illini are different from any other team in that regard.
Penn State has been ranked No. 1 for 19 consecutive weeks. The defending NCAA champions (26-0, 14-0 Big Ten) have won 79 consecutive sets dating back to last season. The Nittany Lions have won 39 consecutive Big Ten matches as they relentlessly push toward a sixth straight conference title. And then there is that NCAA record-tying 52-match winning streak, which some thought was untouchable when Southern Cal first set it from 2002 to 2004.
"They're more like a men's team," Hardin said of Penn State. "They really are so physical at the net. Every one of their players deserves all-conference status. They're strong at every position. ... They have no weaknesses."
In the teams' first meeting Sept. 27, Penn State dominated Illinois 25-16, 25-19, 25-12. But that's typically how the Nittany Lions have treated opponents. While winning all 42 sets against Big Ten foes this year, Penn State has yielded 20 or more points in a set eight times.
"If teams get into the 20s against them, they're celebrating," Hardin said, "and that's been rare."
Almost as rare as Illini victories against No. 1 teams. Illinois is 1-13 all time in such matches. But that first number attests to the fact Friday's daunting challenge isn't impossible. Just improbable, like in 2004.
Illini of the Week
The outside hitter averaged 5.7 kills per set last weekend in two Big Ten road matches and became the second Illini to surpass 1,000 career kills in her first two seasons.
But that's only part of the reason DeBruler occupies this space. As she proved while recording double-doubles against Iowa and Minnesota, the Downers Grove native also is an impact player on defense.
By totaling 27 digs in the two matches, DeBruler raised her season total to 301, second on the team to libero Ashley Edinger (427). With six regular season matches left – plus, presumably, the NCAA tournament – DeBruler is a strong bet to break into the UI's all-time top 10 for single-season digs.
"I love defense," she said. "Diving after a ball and getting it up really fires me up in terms of my overall play."
DeBruler's versatility is apparent in the numbers. She leads the Big Ten in double-double matches (kills and digs) for the season (16) and in conference play (eight). She also is the only player to rank among the Big Ten's top 10 in kills and digs per set.
"She's one of our best defensive players and passers," Hardin said. "If she wasn't such a phenomenal hitter, she probably would be competing for the libero spot.
"It's very rare to find a player who can hold her own at the net and also play backcourt. A lot of players are taller and more powerful at the net, but they're slower and don't play defense in the back. Laura is remarkable in both."
Including, of course, on the attack. DeBruler enters the week ranked seventh in the nation in kills per set (4.65). With 1,023 career kills, she is the second Illini to surpass that milestone as a sophomore. Erin Borske was the first, racking up 1,192 kills in 1994-95.
After its earliest exit from the Big Ten tournament since 1998 – and its poorest Big Ten record since 2002 – the Illini soccer team held its breath Monday night during the NCAA tournament announcements.
Illinois needed strong lungs, too, as it was forced to wait until the final eight-team bracket was revealed. Only then could Janet Rayfield and her players finally exhale as their team's name appeared on the TV screen.
"I knew our strength of schedule would be competitive with almost anyone looking to get an at-large bid," Rayfield said. "The question was whether our strength of schedule would carry us against teams with a better record."
It did. Although the Illini will enter their first-round match at 4 p.m. Friday against Memphis at Columbia, Mo., with a modest 11-8-1 record, they played a total of 10 matches against nine teams that made the NCAA tournament. Illinois' record in those matchups was 4-5-1.
"History tells us that strength of schedule is a critical component (in tournament selection), and we had that piece of the puzzle," Rayfield said.
The bid kept alive the Illini's streak of NCAA tournament appearances, now at six.
"This program is at a point where the players, the coaching staff, the administration all expect to be in the NCAA tournament," Rayfield said. "To not reach that would have been disappointing for a lot of people, especially the senior class. ... No one wants to be the senior group that didn't make it or the team that didn't make it."
Illinois will seek its fifth straight NCAA first-round victory when it faces Conference USA champion Memphis (15-4-2). The winner will play at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Missouri-Evansville survivor.
The Illini are heading to familiar territory, having opened the season with a 2-1 overtime victory at Missouri. Rayfield welcomes the opportunity to begin the NCAA quest in a place her team previously visited.
"It's a field you're familiar with," she said. "You know the surface. You know the environment. I think that's always helpful."
Truth be told, though, Rayfield would be happy to play anywhere after sweating out the NCAA announcement.
"It's in some ways a relief," she said. "Now we know we do have a chance to show what type of team we're capable of being."
The Illinois women's cross-country team hasn't finished lower than a tie for second place in the last four NCAA Midwest Regional meets.
On Saturday, Jeremy Rasmussen's Illini will put that streak on the line in Stillwater, Okla. The UI coach expects nothing less from his 14th-ranked team than a top-two performance.
"If we run to our capability, we should be able to walk away from this meet within the top two," Rasmussen said.
The coaches who vote in the Midwest Regional poll are inclined to think likewise. The Illini are ranked second behind Minnesota, which is No. 7 in the national poll and the reigning Big Ten champion.
By finishing in the top two at regionals, Illinois would guarantee a sixth straight trip to the NCAA Championships. The 6-kilometer women's race begins at 11 a.m., followed by the 10K men's event at 11:45 a.m.
The Illini enter with a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their lineup. Junior Angela Bizzarri twice has finished second in the Midwest Regional, while senior Katie Engel has been the top UI finisher in all three meets she's entered and top eight overall in each race. Both Illini are All-Big Ten first-teamers.
Rasmussen is confident the UI supporting cast of five will continue to carry its share of the load, too. That group is led by freshman Kristin Sutherland, who was the 30th overall finisher at Pre-Nationals and 19th at Big Tens.
"One of my goals (Saturday) is to put five individuals in the top 25, which would be All- Regional," Rasmussen said. "Kristin has done a great job of being our No. 3 girl. She has some lofty goals for herself. And any of those others could be in the next two spots on any given day."
The Illini men enter as the Midwest Region's 12th-ranked team. Junior Jeremy Stevens has been the UI's top finisher in two meets and the team's No. 2 in another.
Clash on the mat
Add wrestling to the ever-growing list of Big Ten sports scheduling inter-conference challenges. Mark Johnson's No. 9 Illini will open their season Saturday in the ACC/Big Ten Clash at Chapel Hill, N.C.
"It's kind of a new concept," said Johnson, who believes this event is the first of its type in his sport. "I'm just looking forward to getting going. You don't know where you are (as a team) at this point. We're just looking to get some competition."
Illinois will face three ACC teams, starting with North Carolina State at 11 a.m. Dual meets follow against No. 21 Virginia at 1 p.m. and the host Tar Heels at 3 p.m.
The Illini return six NCAA qualifiers from a team that went 13-4 in dual meets and placed 14th in the NCAA Championships last season. Also back is 2006 NCAA qualifier Troy Tirapelle, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury last November.
Illinois will be without two of its top wrestlers this weekend. Mike Poeta, the 2008 NCAA runner-up at 157 pounds, and two-time national qualifier John Dergo (174) are recovering from minor knee surgeries.
"Hopefully our young guys will step up and perform well," Johnson said.
The UI coach plans to take at least three true freshmen on the trip: Jordan Blanton (184), B.J. Futrell (125) and Daryl Thomas (125).
"We've got good balance and good senior leadership," Johnson said. "When everybody is healthy and in there, we should be good."
Freshman Britni Fisher has been the Illini’s top finisher in 1-meter diving in all four meets this season, rising to No. 3 on the school’s all-time list of top individuals in the event. The top 10:
DIVER SCORE DATE
Lisa Fish 288.25 Jan. 10, 2004
Allison Prather 285.90 Jan. 17, 2003
Britni Fisher 275.03 Oct. 16, 2008
Andrea Powelski 268.58 Feb. 8, 2002
Kyla Bachtell 261.59 Oct. 27, 2006
Abbey Bernardo 258.52 Oct. 27, 2006
Jackie Bain 247.80 Oct. 9, 2004
Jessica Ohr 243.90 Jan. 19, 2001
Nikki Spillone 240.07 Nov. 7, 2008
Toni Eckert 228.60 Jan. 9, 2002
Kills and digs by Illinois outside hitter Kylie McCulley against Minnesota on Saturday. The junior outside hitter is the second Illini to join the 20-20 club this season, following Laura DeBruler’s 24 kills and 22 digs against the Gophers on Oct. 3. The feat has been achieved 31 times in school history.