Illini split, finish on high note

By Ian Gold

What a difference a day makes.

The Illini went from having their worst match of the season on Friday to having one of their best on Saturday – making fans nostalgic for early September.

This weekend has been known to be a nightmare. Two of the most nationally-glorified volleyball programs visit on the same weekend. Bouncing from one to another can be the toughest task the Big Ten has to offer and will leave the majority of its teams with two more notches in the loss column.

Illinois opened the rough weekend against Penn State on Friday. Last year Penn State graduated two All-Americans but still found a way to return one and reload for the other two; in the last 12 seasons, Penn State has won seven Big Ten championships. Penn State came in to the game ranked No. 5 in the country and had only two losses. From the beginning of the match, the Nittany Lions made sure the Illini did not make it three.

Penn State was led by its setter Sam Tortorello, who was named an All-American last year as a sophomore. Her setting took the Illini out of their game and her craftiness had the Illini guessing where the next point would come from.

“When you play top-10 opponents you are not obligated to win,” junior Rasa Virsilaite said. “But you are obligated to play good volleyball, and we did not do that tonight.”

Besides one game that went to extra points, the Nittany Lions won a lopsided affair, the kind that Illini fans aren’t used to seeing at home.

“Penn State really took it to us tonight,” Illinois head coach Don Hardin said. “This is the first time fans have come to Huff and really seen us play flat.”

Hardin added that a win on Saturday would erase all the negative feelings from the night before. He noted that beating one undefeated top-10 team, then sustaining the injuries they did and coming back to beat another one, would be a phenomenal story.

Ohio State came into Huff Hall undefeated and the early favorite to win the Big Ten championship. They had already defeated No. 2 Minnesota and No. 5 Penn State and had volleyball’s latest queen, Stacey Gordon.

Gordon is the most prolific offensive weapon in the nation. Coming into Saturday, she had 428 kills and a .399 hitting percentage. She also led the team in digs with 191. The Illini said they did not plan on stopping Gordon; it wasn’t possible. So the Illini decided they would stop everyone else.

“There are a lot of sophisticated plans to stop Gordon crumpled up in a trash can somewhere,” Hardin said.

Illinois jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. As uninspired as the team played on Friday, the women came back to play their best match of the year on Saturday. Illinois pounced on No. 7 Ohio State and swept them in three games, two of them by six points or more.

“They probably heard that last night we didn’t show up,” said junior Rachel VanMeter. “We said to ourselves to cross the line and we were here to do business tonight.”

On the night, Illinois had a hitting percentage of .377 and were led by VanMeter, who rose to Gordon’s challenge and answered with 19 kills. Ohio State players were wearing grimaces that displayed complete disbelief. How could a team that got so outplayed the night before by a team that they had already beat, come back and dominate?

“It’s nice to see how they responded after last night,” Hardin said Saturday. “They went home last night and put their heads on their pillows with a different vision in mind.”

Gordon ended up with a match-high 24 kills in only three games, but Illinois ended up with their second victory over a top-10, undefeated team.