Volleyball measuring up

Tim Eggerding

Tim Eggerding

By Ian Gold

This Illinois volleyball team is growing up and getting healthy, which could be dangerous for the rest of the league. Illinois split its games this weekend but proved that they are fighting to put the team back into the Big Ten’s elite.

The Big Ten has three teams all ranked in the top 10 nationally. Illinois’ first stop on the road trip was to face Iowa, an unranked team. The Illini realized that before taking on the No. 2 Golden Gophers they would have to heat up against the Hawkeyes.

“Usually in Iowa we have a tendency to play down and then have to pull out a win in five games,” said junior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter. “They have a huge arena and don’t get many fans – it’s draining, but we just went in there and dominated.”

Thanks to the healthy return of middle blocker Jen Hynds, the Illini defense was able to shut down the Hawkeyes. The Illini defense is the constant, but the wild card has re-entered the equation.

“My confidence is coming back and me and Steph (Obermeier) are connecting more,” Hynds said.

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    Saturday morning the Illini had already taken the first step to a perfect weekend, but what followed was a daunting task. Minnesota not only has the highest rated team in the Big Ten but was ranked No. 1 for a good portion of the year and packed its stadium. Eleven thousand people came to watch the Illini battle Minnesota, the largest crowd in volleyball this year, said head coach Don Hardin.

    But in comparison with last year, the crowd did not phase the Illini.

    “(The team had a) tremendous amount of composure and attitude, thrived on the environment,” Hardin said.

    Jen Hynds added that the environment gave her a lot of energy and because the team concentrated on playing within themselves, they fed off the crowd.

    Illinois played Minnesota tough in every game but ended up losing the match in the fourth, 3-1. But it was much closer than the score would show. The Illini are finding that they are almost back to where they were pre-injuries.

    “Take any team in our conference and take out their no. 1 middle blocker and setter and you are going to see a different team,” Hardin said. “I think we are going to be good and before the year’s end see more major upsets.”

    Because of the team’s play this weekend, Hardin feels confident that they are improving.

    “They played very consistently all weekend,” Hardin said. “…some teams just play good enough for their opponent or good enough to lose; I thought we were very consistent.”

    There was no better time for the Illini to prove to themselves that they belong than this, because this weekend Illinois will have to face two top-ten teams back-to-back: undefeated Ohio State and last year’s conference champion Penn State. The Illini feel that another night they could have gotten the better of Minnesota, even in front of a gym full of Gopher fans, so wins at home against these teams are possible.

    “Ohio State and Penn State are great teams, but we are not going to let anybody’s reputation affect us,” VanMeter said. “We just look at it as playing a team, and we know that if we play our game, we win.”