Volleyball preview: Illinois (8-10, 4-4 Big Ten) at Northwestern (12-8, 4-4), 7 p.m. today
Setting the scene
This is the first of four Wednesday matches on the Illini’s Big Ten schedule and the first of three in as many weeks. Illinois typically would take Monday off from practice this week, but with his team playing a Wednesday/Sunday schedule, coach Kevin Hambly will give the players Thursday off instead. That still allows two days to prepare for the next match at Wisconsin. “We’ll spend (Monday and Tuesday) not crushing them, but we’ll work to make sure we’re prepared (for Northwestern),” he said. “We’re going to try to make (the schedule) an opportunity.” ... Illinois has won the last four meetings and eight of the last nine matches against the Wildcats. The Illini are 6-1 in their last seven visits to Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Illinois remained stuck in a pattern of 1-1 Big Ten splits last weekend, but the team is playing at a higher level than was the case early in the conference race. Since being swept by Nebraska and Michigan State, Illinois is 3-2 and was highly competitive in each of the losses, including a five-set battle against current No. 2 Penn State. ... One factor in the Illini’s improved play is a more effective attack. Illinois hit .387, .211 and .275 in its last three matches. Although the middle figure is the lowest, it might be the most meaningful because it came against a Penn State team that entered with a Big Ten-best .137 opponent hitting percentage. “This week we talked about extending the periods of time we were attacking hard, and I thought we made strides in that aspect,” Illini middle blocker Maddie Mayers said after Sunday’s victory against Ohio State. ... Mayers had six kills against the Buckeyes, her most in the last seven matches. However, Hambly would have preferred that the freshman had taken more than the 11 swings. “I wish it was a bigger impact offensively,” he said. “We wanted to get to her more. But blockingwise (five block assists), she did a nice job.” ... Because Jocelynn Birks is the Illini’s top scorer and kills leader, the outside hitter’s defense can be an overshadowed aspect of her game. It shouldn’t be. The redshirt sophomore led Illinois in digs (13) and tied for the team lead in block assists (four) against Penn State. Two days later, Birks notched 11 digs and three block assists versus Ohio State. Combined with her kills, Birks finished with double-doubles in each match. She now has five double-doubles this season and 18 for her career.
For those who discounted the Wildcats entering the Big Ten race, Keylor Chan’s team is proving that can be a big mistake. Like the more highly regarded Illini — who are Northwestern’s conference schedule partner — the Wildcats are 4-4. And in that span, Northwestern knocked off nationally ranked Purdue and Ohio State teams. “I think they’re very good,” Hambly said. “They got a win at Purdue, and we didn’t get that one.” Northwestern’s success finally caught the attention of coaches who vote in the AVCA Top 25. The Wildcats received votes on at least two ballots this week (teams on one ballot are not identified) for the first time this season. ... In past seasons, Hambly would prepare for a middle-dominated attack from Northwestern. Not this year. Senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus isn’t the lone pin hitter Illinois will need to be aware of. Katie Dutchman was moved from middle blocker to right-side hitter this season and is producing 3.13 points per set. “They (still) have good middles, but they’re more pin-dominant now,” Hambly said. “We’ll have to do a good job of when they spread us out of getting out there and blocking them.” ... Holthus, a 2012 third-team All-American, ranks fourth in the Big Ten in kills per set (4.03) and fifth in points (4.47). ... Northwestern has an exciting young talent in Caleigh Ryan. The freshman setter leads the Big Ten and ranks 18th nationally in assists per set (11.38).