Loren Tate: Volleyball, soccer need to pick up pace

Loren Tate: Volleyball, soccer need to pick up pace

Watch out for flying objects. Mischievous and grotesque, the goblins are coming to spoil our fun.

It’s October. And this promises to be a challenging month for three Illini teams nursing postseason ambitions.

Call it fish-or-cut-bait time for UI football, volleyball and soccer teams, all stationed with their backs squarely to the wall. They want to play beyond the regular autumn season, and the two women’s teams are egged on by the kind of home opportunities the Illini men’s tennis team narrowly missed last spring when the UI hosted the NCAA Championships (a second-round loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville).
Home field is a tremendous incentive, and the Illini’s involvement would change the competitive nature and the attendance for two major events already scheduled here: an NCAA volleyball regional Dec. 12-14 and the Big Ten soccer tournament beginning Nov. 6.

Kevin Hambly’s 6-8 volleyballers must finish at least .500 to qualify for the NCAA first round. The requires an 11-9 conference record after a 2-2 start. Still attainable for Illinois is a first-round site that goes to the top 16 seeds in the 64-team volleyball shootout.

In Big Ten soccer, only eight of a dozen teams advance to the conference tournament at the Illinois Soccer Stadium, and Janet Rayfield’s Illini are off to a shaky 1-3-1 start.

Meanwhile, with 35 bowls begging for teams, Tim Beckman’s 3-2 footballers just want to play anywhere, even Detroit. They face the toughest test, needing six victories to attain bowl status. The home crowd will get an idea of their chances as the Illini host strong Wisconsin and Michigan State teams later this month.

In volleyball ...
Two years removed from an NCAA runner-up finish, Hambly envisioned his 2013 team playing its first four NCAA matches at the State Farm Center. The Illini tuned up by defeating Iowa 3-0 there Sept. 27.

That remains the goal but an erratic start knocked the Illini out of volleyball’s Top 20, making the first-round quest more difficult. The team is wading through the nation’s most difficult schedule, according to the NCAA RPI.

Of 21 opponents overall, 15 participated in the 2012 NCAA tournament, and 11 of 14 matches so far came against teams in the Top 50.

With Saturday’s rallying, five-set triumph at Michigan as backdrop, the weekend in Indiana could help clarify things. The Illini tangle with Purdue (1-3) on Friday night and Indiana (0-4) on Saturday, and a pair of road wins would create an electric atmosphere for powerhouse Penn State next Friday at Huff.

The Big Ten schedule runs through November, so Hambly still has time to complete his search for the right combinations and better setup passing.
But there’s no letup in the nation’s toughest conference.

In soccer ...
Soccer prospects appeared excellent when midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo returned from her one-game sojourn with the USA National team in early September. She was only the third collegian on the U.S. team, having participated previously on the USA’s U-20 World Cup title team.

But DiBernardo injured her knee against Iowa on Sept. 27 and, without the star athlete who controls the midfield, the Illini lost close 3-2, 1-0 and 3-2 matches to Nebraska, Purdue and Indiana.

Rayfield, who has led the Illini into the Big Ten tourney on each of nine previous opportunities, is cautiously bringing DiBernardo back. The senior All-American is working out but remains questionable for Saturday’s 6 p.m. match with Wisconsin here.

The season is winding down rapidly. DiBernardo is expected to travel to Northwestern and Penn State the following weekend, after which the Illini will have three matches left.

In football ...
Illini football needs an upset or two to play in December.

Penn State offers a greater opportunity Nov. 2 than previously anticipated. If you thought the Nittany Lions were headed for another 8-4 season, think again. They barely beat Syracuse (23-17), fell to Central Florida and Indiana, and face Michigan and Ohio State before hosting Illinois.

Bill O’Brien’s unhappiness was apparent Tuesday when he became abrupt and touchy with replies on the Big Ten teleconference.

Illinois will return next month to the site of a game that set the stage for Ron Zook’s demise. The Illini were 6-2, having played Ohio State a tight 17-7 game, when they took on the Joe Paterno (in the booth) clan on a snowy Saturday.
Scoreless in the first half for the third consecutive game, Illinois nevertheless led 7-3 when the Nittany Lions marched late and got a fourth-down break when Illini Justin Green drew a pass-interference call in the end zone. Penn State scored with 1:08 to go, and the 10-7 score held up when Derek Dimke’s bid to tie hit the right upright.

It was downhill for Zook from that point, but it serves as a reminder that, for all their homefield advantages, the Nittany Lions are vulnerable these days. They lost to Central Florida before a reported 92,855 home fans a month ago.

Indiana and Purdue remain the other most likely opportunities for Illinois to reach six wins, both also coming on the road.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.