ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks registered 14 of her match-high 20 kills in the third set to go along with seven digs and two blocks, but it wasn’t enough for the 22nd-ranked Illinois volleyball team in a 25-16, 25-19, 26-24 loss to Michigan on Wednesday night at Cliff Keen Arena.
The Illini (8-9, 2-5 Big Ten) have lost four consecutive matches, their longest streak since 2007. The win for the Wolverines (15-5, 3-4) snapped a three-match skid.
Jennifer Beltran (17 digs) and Ali Stark (13) led the defensive effort, while Annie Luhrsen dished out 38 assists for Illinois, which returns to action Saturday at Michigan State.
The Wolverines out-hit the Illini .304 to .181, and the Illini committed 10 service errors.
Michigan’s balanced attack was led by Jennifer Cross’ 14 kills, seven digs and seven blocks. Lexi Irwin added 12 kills, and Claire McElheny had 11.
One year after advancing to the NCAA title match, the Illini volleyball team is struggling to find success. We asked beat writer JEFF HUTH
to identify some areas Kevin Hambly’s team, which entered the week with an 8-8 record, needs to improve upon in order to get on a roll:
Hambly has repeatedly said that dig totals are one of the less meaningful statistics in the sport, rarely correlating directly to wins and losses. That doesn’t mean, however, that the UI coach is dismissive of what he is seeing from his team on the court and in the stats when it comes to digging up shots. “We need to get better on digging balls,” Hambly said. Entering the week, opponents were outdigging Illinois 13.4 to 12.5 per set. The Illini also ranked last in the Big Ten and 298th in the nation in digs. This is having a two-pronged effect on Illinois, and neither is positive. Opponents are scoring too easily, and the Illini are missing valuable opportunities to turn digs into their own scoring chances. “We need to make more plays on defense,” Hambly said. In libero Jennifer Beltran, Illinois has one of the Big Ten’s best at this skill. And redshirt freshman outside hitter Jocelynn Birks has made impressive strides recently in this aspect of her game. But they need more help. It’s become more apparent, too, how valuable Rachel Feldman was to recent UI teams in her role as a defensive specialist. Her graduation left a void that has yet to be filled. “We miss Rachel,” Hambly said. “Rachel dug a lot of balls for us. She would make plays.”
Serving it up
There might be no bigger hot-button topic among Illini volleyball fans than serving. Hambly insists upon his team serving aggressively. To do otherwise, he says, makes it too easy for opponents to stay in system, leaving his defense vulnerable to a high-percentage kill attempt. This approach, however, has a price: service errors. Exasperated fans will point to the fact that last year’s team racked up 306 service errors, 60 more than opponents. Hambly will point out the 2011 Illini held opponents to a .183 hitting percent — one of the lowest in the nation. But there’s not much to brag about this year. Entering the week, opponents were hitting .243 against Illinois, by far the worst figure in the Big Ten. The Illini still are serving as aggressively as ever, but they’re too seldom seeing the desired results. That includes service aces, where Illinois ranks 265th in the nation with an average of barely one per set. The Illini are averaging nearly two service errors per set. Based on his previous Illini teams, Hambly was expecting better by now. “At this stage of the season in the past, we’ve been able to serve aggressive and miss less, and that’s where we’ve got to get to,” he said. “We should be more consistent at this stage of the season at serving aggressive, and the ball should be in more. But we don’t want to let up.”
During the recent three-match losing streak, Hambly was shaking his head at the number of times his team mishandled balls on the second contact. “We’ve missed in big moments,” Hambly said. “When you’re in the big matches, each point’s precious, and you saw that against Penn State. That’s three points we just gave them on mishandled balls.” Because the majority of Illini second contacts are made by Annie Luhrsen, you might assume that the blame falls on the senior setter. But it isn’t only Luhrsen. It’s not possible to run every attack through the setter, and non-setters can expect to be called upon to make that second contact from time to time. Against Ohio State, six of Luhrsen’s teammates recorded at least one assist. When the Illini aren’t executing on the second contact, they’re squandering kill opportunities. And recently, that’s been killing them in the close matches. “That’s something we weren’t doing earlier,” Hambly said. “We’ve got to eliminate those.” As with Feldman’s absence on defense, the Illini are feeling the effects of the loss of two 2011 seniors with reliable second-contact skills: Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward. “If they got their hand on a ball, they put up a very hittable ball,” Hambly said.
Blocking it out
When Illinois outblocked No. 1 Penn State last Saturday, it reinforced the fact that Illinois is capable of putting up a formidable wall at the net. Statistically, Illinois has two of the Big Ten’s top eight blockers in 6-foot-3 middles Erin Johnson and Anna Dorn. Teammate Liz McMahon, a 6-6 right-side hitter, isn’t far behind with her blocking numbers and presents an even bigger obstacle at the net to opposing hitters. But that’s only part of the story. When opponents attack from the right side, the Illini block at times has proven to be highly vulnerable. That’s because Illinois is forced to counter on its side of the net with a block that includes 6-2 Jocelynn Birks and 6-1 Ali Stark — a pair of redshirt freshman outside hitters short on college experience and, comparatively speaking, short on height. When the Illini have faced top-tier right-side hitters, the mismatches at the net often are stark. Among those who’ve done major damage to Illinois are Iowa State’s Mackenzie Bigbee (25 kills in 44 swings), Minnesota’s Katherine Harms (17 kills in 30 swings) and Penn State’s Ariel Scott (19 kills in 43 swings). Hambly says he’s seen encouraging progress from Birks with her blocking. Still, he knows how much the 6-3 Bartsch and the 6-2 Ward meant to the Illini’s block when they were starting at outside hitter.
Taking the fifth
Seven of the Illini’s first 16 matches went to five sets. This Illinois team is almost always competitive, even with top-tier opponents, but it’s not so accomplished that it can mow down lesser opponents. Then there’s the fact that Illinois’ remaining regular season matches are all against Big Ten opponents. The high degree of familiarity among conference teams — and the highly detailed scouting reports — can work in the favor of the underdog. After all, who would have guessed lowly Iowa would extend mighty Penn State to four sets or that the point differential in that match through three sets would have favored the Nittany Lions by only 77-70? “It’s the Big Ten,” is Hambly’s explanation. Presuming the Illini can expect multiple five-set battles the rest of the way, what does that mean? With a 2-5 record in such matches so far, Illinois has work to do when it comes to breaking through in Set 5s. Whatever happens, Hambly is convinced his team isn’t tightening up in these winner-take-all situations. “Against Penn State, they made some plays at the end, and we didn’t,” he said. “But we weren’t nervous. You look at your team and you can tell when they’re anxious. There was no panic in their face when we went to five. Same for (against) Ohio State. We just didn’t play well in the fifth set.”