Volleyball loses four, ends strong

By Mike Czapar

The Illinois women’s volleyball team did not have much to be thankful for over this holiday break. The Illini struggled, losing four matches in a row before their matchup with Iowa Saturday night at Huff Hall.

However, the squad that has seen its ups and downs dug in and sent its seniors off with a bang.

After the pre-game recognition of the team’s four seniors – Kathleen Bazzetta, Jessica Belter, Lauren Harks and Erin Virtue – the Illini took out their aggression on Iowa defeating the Hawkeyes in three games 30-21, 30-22 and 30-25.

The Illini hit .298 on the attack and was led by its three players with double-digit kills – redshirt freshman Jen Hynds (14), juniors Rasa Virsilaite (11) and Rachel VanMeter (11). Although the Hawkeyes made a few runs, they never really put together enough points to threaten the Illini.

Head coach Don Hardin was glad to see the Illini finish the regular season strong, and complimented the effort the four seniors have put in over the last four years.

“I think they have been one of the better senior classes in quite a few years, especially at Huff,” Hardin said in the post-game press conference. “They have elevated our program and our expectations these past few years. The senior class has really started Illinois’ return to national prominence. As we continue to rise, I will always think of them as the group who brought it back.”

Although the Illini were glad to end the regular season on a high note, the matches preceding Saturday’s victory took a toll on the their confidence.

Illinois was defeated by Purdue, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 Minnesota, respectively, including two consecutive five-game battles at Purdue and Ohio State and a tough three-game loss to a powerful Minnesota team at Huff Hall.

The Illini knew its second run at the three-game stretch of top-ranked opponents would be tough, and it started strong by forcing five games against an Ohio State team with the best hitter in the nation, Stacey Gordon. The Illinois defense played well at the net, recording a season-high 17 blocks, but were unable to stop the Buckeyes.

“I’m disappointed with the loss,” Hardin said in the press release. “We fought through (an early lack of aggression) and made it a match, but I felt we should have won tonight. We are trying to teach our players to expect to win against top-10 teams, even on the road.”

After dropping the first match in the difficult three-game stretch, the Illini were swept by Penn State and Minnesota consecutively due to the powerful defenses of both opponents.

The Illini hope to put their losses behind them and build off the win against Iowa as they enter the postseason.

Hardin admits that his team has experienced some adversity, but he is hopeful the Illini will have a good postseason effort.

“I think we are struggling a little bit with our battered confidence,” Hardin said in the post-game press conference. “Right now we are kind of like a boxer that’s been out with a contender who got brutalized and is trying to come back and gain confidence.”