Volleyball preview: Illinois (12-16, 6-12) at Northwestern (16-13, 5-13), 7 p.m. Thursday
Setting the scene
For the first time since 2007, the Illini won’t play in the postseason. Illinois was eliminated from NCAA tournament eligibility Friday when it lost to Michigan State.
The defeat meant that the Illini could not finish the regular season with a .500 record — a requirement to be considered for an NCAA at-large berth. With two matches left, the 2011 NCAA tournament runners-up now can finish no better than 14-16.
After the loss to the Spartans, middle blocker Erin Johnson was adamant that the Illini would continue to fight for every win possible. “We still have matches left in the season,” the senior said. “We’ll have to bounce back ... It doesn’t mean the rest of the season doesn’t mean anything to us.”
In fact, the Illini did rebound the next night, defeating Michigan in four sets to halt a three-match losing streak.
... As it turned out, Illini outside hitter Jocelynn Birks tied her career high for kills against the Wolverines. The initial postmatch statistics listed the redshirt freshman with 24 kills. Later that night, too late for The News-Gazette’s print deadline, the UI stats crew discovered that Birks actually had 25. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week now has 10 20-kill matches, which ranks sixth on the school single-season list.
... Illini defensive specialist Julia Conard is making a major impact lately. The freshman racked up double-figure dig totals in each of the last three matches, including a career-high 17 Nov. 10 against Ohio State. In eight of her last nine matches, Conard has at least seven digs. In her 15 previous matches, Conard has as many as seven digs twice, with a high of eight.
... When these teams met Oct. 17 at Huff Hall, Illinois pulled out a five-set victory behind right-side hitter Liz McMahon’s match-high 18 kills and five block assists.
The scoop on Northwestern
Coach: Keylor Chan (13th year, 190-211)
Players to watch: So. MB Katie Dutchman, Jr. OH Stephanie Holthus, Sr. S Madalyn Shalter.
About the Wildcats: Northwestern has lost five of its last six matches, the exception coming last Friday, when the Wildcats defeated Michigan in four sets. In that match, Holthus belted a career-high 28 kills to go with 19 digs.
... Holthus was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week on Monday after notching double-doubles in both of Northwestern’s matches last week. The Burlington Central graduate ranks fourth in the Big Ten in kills per set (4.22) and fifth in points per set (4.68).
... Northwestern is assured of its seventh consecutive losing Big Ten record. The Wildcats last avoided a sub.-500 league mark in 2005 (10-10) and haven’t finished a Big Ten race with a winning record since 1988 (11-7).