IOWA CITY, Iowa — A nonconference losing streak never materialized last season for the Illinois volleyball program.
Sure, coach Chris Tamas’ program did drop two consecutive matches — only once, mind you — during Big Ten play a year ago en route to a trip to the Final Four.
But this year’s group will have to overcome some adversity in the nonconference part of the schedule after unranked Colorado topped the fifth-ranked Illini 30-28, 25-19, 25-20 on Saturday evening during the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
A day after failing to close out No. 16 Washington in a five-set loss, the Illini (2-2) ended their stay in Iowa with only two leads against the Buffaloes (5-0), both happening late in the first set.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Tamas said. “We can’t spot good teams lots of points. We’ve got to stop the streaks. We’ve got the firepower to do it, but we’ve just got to figure out how to play as a collective unit. We saw some new people on the floor, and they gave us a chance to show us what they got, and we’ll go from there.”
St. Thomas More graduate Mica Allison, a sophomore setter who transferred from Auburn this offseason, made her Illini debut, coming off the bench and registering two kills after missing the first three matches with an injury.
“She can do lots of things,” Tamas said. “I thought she had some good swings. With the injury, she’s maybe not quite where we want her to be, but everyone got a shot. She’s an important part of the team as everyone else is.”
But even with new lineup combinations — Croatia native and outside hitter Bruna Vrankovic also made her Illini debut on Saturday — along with a team-high 15 kills from Jacqueline Quade and 30 assists from Diana Brown didn’t translate into success against Colorado. The Buffaloes outlasted a late Illini push to win the first set before taking a quick 7-1 lead in the second set and never looking back.
“We have a lot of competition going in the gym right now,” Tamas said. “We weren’t playing great in the first set, so after the last couple matches, it just gives you freedom to see what’s going on.”
The Illini have five more nonconference matches still on the slate, including a Sweet 16 rematch from last season against Marquette at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday to cap its three matches next weekend at the Redbird Classic in Normal.
Big Ten play begins with a difficult task in the conference opener when the Illini host defending national runner-up Nebraska, who beat Illinois in last year’s national semifinal, at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 27 at Huff Hall. Illinois will return to Huff this week for practice, looking to fix what went wrong this weekend before playing Illinois State at 7 p.m. this Friday.
“The reason why we’re playing a tougher schedule is to see what we’ve got out there and what we can and can’t do against good opponents,” Tamas said. “We’ll have a tough week of practice here, but we’ll be better for it.”