CHAMPAIGN — A shift in mindset heading into last weekend’s Bluejay Invitational put Illinois volleyball on more solid footing after a pair of losses a week prior in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
A four-set win against Omaha and a sweep of SMU made for a rather impressive Friday.
“Nothing to take away from UNO or SMU — those are both really good teams — but we collectively told ourselves we were going to impose our will on the teams,” Illinois setter Diana Brown said. “Why can’t we walk in there and be the Big Ten team and stomp on these teams?”
That positive momentum didn’t carry over into the final match of the Bluejay Invitational. Illinois quickly fell behind two sets to then-No. 19 Creighton to continue an unfortunate trend in nonconference play this fall.
It was the same 0-2 hole Illinois dug itself against both then-No. 11 Washington and Colorado in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge at Huff Hall earlier this month. The result against Creighton was the same, too.
“We’ve gone down 0-2 to those three teams we’ve played that are in that upper echelon category,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said about the only three matches the Illini have lost this season. “We’ve got to step it up defensively and be little bit more relaxed and not waiting for something to happen. I know we’re capable of it. We’ve showed it every match. We’ve had some good fight.
“But we can’t wait until our backs are against the wall to finally be like, ‘All right, now it’s time to play.’ It’s just the mentality switch I think you get into when your backs are against the wall where you play more freely. We’ve just got to do that from the get go.”
The Illini (5-3) have one more weekend of nonconference play — a short trip to Normal to play Missouri (2-8) and Illinois State (3-6) on Friday before wrapping up play at the Redbird Classic against North Texas (6-3) on Saturday — before their backs could be repeatedly up against the wall. Big Ten play starts Sept. 22 at Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes aren’t ranked, the conference does have six teams in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25. Four of the six are in the 10 nationally.
“I would say our team is still on a positive slope up,” Brown said. “We’ve talked about we don’t want to be playing our best volleyball right now. We want to see the steady incline up, of course, but we don’t want to be at peak Illinois volleyball right now. Going into Big Ten play, I think we’ve gained momentum throughout each weekend.”
Illinois’ three losses have provided a platform for the team to understand some of the play it has gotten away with in its five nonconference wins doesn’t fly against top competition. It didn’t against Washington, Colorado and Creighton and certainly won’t against Big Ten opponents.
“The match against Creighton didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Illini fifth-year outside hitter Megan Cooney said. “It showed so much that we were able to get away with in the first two matches — things in our game we have to step up. That was very clear in the Creighton match.”
“We talk about getting away with things, and that doesn’t happen in the Big Ten season,” Brown added. “Playing tough opponents exposes our weaknesses. Showing that early is great because we can work those out in practice and try to impose our will on other teams without having our weaknesses show too much.”
Cooney pointed to two areas Illinois needed to address heading into the final weekend of nonconfernece play. The Illini’s first touch — the balls they’re sending to Brown — have to improve. So does shot selection from the hitters.
Brown wants to see on-court communication continue to improve. She also wants to make sure her own sets are in the right window for her hitters.
“You can see all these ‘I want, I want, I want,’ but in the end, it’s still volleyball and it’s still unpredictable,” Brown said. “I would love to see the little details ironed out, but that’s why we practice every single day.”
That’s where Tamas and the Illinois coaching staff comes in. The obvious missteps aren’t necessarily easy to fix, but they’re easy to address. Tamas also concerns himself about how the Illini move as a team, their energy and how they’re communicating.
“You’re not going to just improve overnight,” Tamas said. “If it were that easy, everyone would just do it. A lot of these players, they need that direction of what to focus on. That’s our job as coaches to be, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to get us the most points right here, right now.’
“We identified a couple items that we felt we were losing some points on or maybe some opportunities to get points with some ball control stuff and some communication items we can address within a week that could helps us turn 5-6 more points, which could be the difference in a set, which could be the difference in a match.”