Wave of energy carries volleyball
CHAMPAIGN — The first two sets of Illinois’ season opener against Long Beach State had their ragged moments. It’s to be expected in that first-match-of-the-year, feel-each-other-out kind of way. But after those ragged moments, the 11th-ranked Illini showed their ability to finish. They rallied from a late four-point deficit to win the first set and finished strong in an up-and-down second.
Then Illinois applied that same kind of play that helped the squad finish off Long Beach State in the first two sets to start the third. The Illini built a big lead, weathered one slip in the middle and wrapped up their season opener with a 25-21, 24-21, 25-15 win.
“During the break we saw how good we can be at closing the sets, so kind of tried to start that mentality from the beginning,” Illinois senior outside hitter Liz McMahon said. “I think we did good at that.”
Illinois coach Kevin Hambly was pleased to see his team take that type of mindset back onto the court following the break between the second and third sets. Oftentimes, that’s where a letdown can happen. For the Illini, it was the opposite.
“I thought they settled in and played determined to win, which is the biggest thing that we wanted to see,” Hambly said. “We found a way to win those two sets. They played with a nice level of determination and executed when it mattered, and it was nice to see them bring it out of the break.”
McMahon and sophomore middle blocker Katie Stadick started Illinois’ early run in the third set. McMahon delivered back-to-back kills, then combined for a block with Stadick. A kill from Jocelynn Birks and another from Stadick gave Illinois a 5-0 advantage — an edge it held to close out the win.
“It was good to get in an offensive rhythm. We didn’t see that at all in the exhibition match,” McMahon said. “I think we came out with a different mentality than we did last Saturday. We knew we had to bring energy this time around.”
Stadick’s play in the middle was a real bright spot for the Illini. She did get a few more opportunities — at least offensively — than fellow middle Anna Dorn, who was in the front row along with Birks and McMahon, but she took advantage of them while tying McMahon for the team lead with three total blocks.
Stadick played some last season, but with her play leading up to the season — and against Long Beach State — her role looks to be expanding. She’s ready for it.
“I’m ready to do whatever the team needs me to do,” she said. “I just want to get after it and play hard for the team.”
That’s what she’ll have to do with Dorn’s veteran experience and both Maddie Mayers and Kathryn Polkoff challenging for playing time.
“Middles is not a strength for us offensively, but blocking wise it certainly is a strength,” Hambly added. “Katie’s been our best attacker, so that separates her a little.”
Illinois (1-0) will be back in action at the Illini Classic with two matches today. The Illini play Southern Illinois at 10 a.m. and finish the tournament with a 7:30 p.m. match against No. 20 North Carolina.
Flaws shoots Illini to win. Illinois looked to be in command of Friday’s non-conference match against Arizona State, with Allison Stucky’s first goal of the season just shy of seven minutes into the first half still the margin at halftime.
Arizona State’s Aly Moon tied things up early in the second half, but then Jannelle Flaws went to work for the Illini. Flaws scored twice in less than three minutes, giving Illinois a 3-1 win to end its three-match homestand.
After two matches of utilizing two goalkeepers, Illinois coach Janet Rayfield went with Claire Wheatley for the full 90 minutes, and the sophomore keeper made four saves.
The Illini (2-1-0) will play again Sunday at noon in Rochester, Mich., against Oakland. Illinois won’t play at home again until a Sept. 18 Big Ten showdown against Indiana.
Changing it up
Illinois’ season-opening win against Long Beach State was the first time beat writer Scott Richey got to see the Illini in action against another team. He came away from it with a different outlook than after the flat intrasquad scrimmage a week ago:
Coach Kevin Hambly said team defense would be Illinois’ strength this season. It would help the Illini through times they struggled in their new up-tempo offense and keep them in more matches. They showed it against Long Beach State. Katie Stadick, Anna Dorn, Liz McMahon, Ali Stark and Morganne Criswell put up a great block, giving Illinois 10 total for the match. And once the Illini coaching staff figured out exactly where to position freshman starting libero Brandi Donnelly against Long Beach State, the 49ers stopped hitting her direction.
“I hope we can get a lot of deflections and get a lot of stops and make it real difficult to score,” Hambly said. “When we’ve had good teams, that’s what we’ve done. It’s been really hard to score on us. The Big Ten is about defense. It’s a lot like basketball. It’s a grind-it-out, physical league. We’ve got to start figuring out how to play that way against anybody.”
Illinois will be tough to stop offensively if its trio of outside hitters — Jocelynn Birks, McMahon and Criswell — play like they did against Long Beach State. They combined for 32 kills and all hit better than .300 (with Birks and McMahon hitting .455 and .471, respectively). The wild card is Criswell. She was a little off in the first set but picked up her level of play considerably to finish the match. If she does that consistently, that trio will hurt a lot of Illini opponents.
The crowd was significantly larger Friday night than last Saturday, as the “Stuff Huff” promotion drew 2,942. It made a difference. Huff was loud. Raucous at times. No opposing team will have it easy at Huff, but it’s an atmosphere in which the Illini thrive. It showed in the energy level they brought to the match — a night-and-day difference from the scrimmage.