Illinois looks to win two

By Mike Czapar

The No. 19 Illinois women’s volleyball team hits the road this weekend, taking on Wisconsin and Northwestern in its first away games of the Big Ten season.

After splitting their first two Big Ten matches last weekend, the Illini (9-2) must play at Wisconsin, where they have not won a match since 1995.

According to Illinois’ media guide, Wisconsin had the second highest average attendance in the nation during the 2003 season, packing in over 7,000 people per match.

Senior outside hitter Jessica Belter said although the team anticipates a hostile environment, the Illini have been focusing more on teamwork and working with a younger squad.

“We’ve really just been working on us, and not who or where we’re playing,” Belter said. “We need to make sure we remember it’s not about our surroundings or even the scouting report; it’s about our team chemistry and our ability to stay focused even after we’ve faced some adversity early in the season.”

The Illini have had a hard time rebuilding after they lost setter Erin Virtue to an ACL injury. The senior will be out for the remainder of the season.

Also on the sideline for the Illini is redshirt freshman middle blocker, Jen Hynds.

Filling in Virtue’s big shoes is redshirt freshman Stephanie Obermeier, who is faced with the tough task of running the offense and getting the team’s timing down.

Head coach Don Hardin is pleased with the way younger players have filled the vacancies due to injuries, especially at a tough position like setter.

“I really like the way Meg Griffin and Stephanie Obermeier have both stepped into those roles,” Hardin said. “Volleyball is a timing game, and every play runs off your setter. When you switch that player, it really affects the play of everyone.”

The Illini admit it took some time to assimilate to a different setter, but are optimistic coming into the weekend.

Junior outside hitter Rasa Virsilaite said she noticed a big difference in the mentality at practice this week.

“This week we’ve really spent a lot of time recovering from the loss of Virtue,” Virsilaite said. “Last week, we were all kind of down and the gym was pretty quiet during practice. This week the enthusiasm is back up at a high level like before.”

As the Illini gear up for a big weekend, Hardin emphasized the importance of maintaining composure during a difficult time.

“We really want to try and stay focused during a time of transition and change,” Hardin said. “We want to make sure we come back from this trip with something in our pockets, even if its not two victories.”