Volleyball heads into postseason

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By Mike Czapar

It’s hard to utter the words “NCAA tournament” without hearing Dick Vitale interject “Yeah, Baby!” However, as the Illinois women’s volleyball team gets ready to begin tournament play, they will do their best without Dicky V.

After the 16th NCAA tournament parings were announced Sunday night, the Illini found out they will again be taking on Don Hardin’s previous team Louisville in the opening round.

The Illinois-Louisville rematch of last year’s second round match, an Illini victory, will start at 4 p.m. in Columbia, Mo.

Despite defeating the Cardinals in only three games last year, the Illini anticipate a tough battle with the Louisville squad that has only two losses all season.

Senior outside hitter Jessica Belter said there are positives and negatives for playing a familiar team in the NCAA tournament.

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    “Playing Louisville for the second year in a row is going to be an advantage for us and a disadvantage,” Belter said. “They know us and we know them. They’re a very big team and a very athletic team. We are going to have to go in there and be ready to buckle down and compete.”

    Although the Louisville squad is not much different this year, Hardin said his old team will be eager to avenge last year’s loss and excited to play Illinois on a more neutral court.

    “They have a lot of similar players returning from last year,” Hardin said. “They have a lot of strong international players. I think the fact that we played so well against them last time means they’re going to be geared up for a neutral court opportunity to even the score.”

    If the Illini advance, they would take on the winner of the match between No. 16 Missouri and Arkansas Saturday night in the second round.

    As always, the Big Ten is well represented in the tournament, sharing the highest number of teams from any conference to qualify (7) with the Big 12.

    Even more impressive, three of the top five ranked teams come from the Big Ten – No. 2 Penn State, No. 4 Minnesota and No. 5 Ohio State.

    Senior defensive specialist Lauren Harks is not surprised by the national presence of the Big Ten. She said the difficulties the Illini have experienced because of the tough conference schedule have prepared the team for the postseason.

    “(The high ranking of Big Ten teams) means that we’re facing a team in the top 10 or top 25 every weekend,” Harks said. “Sometimes it’s hard because you want to be able to win every match, and if you play teams that strong you’re not going to be able to win all the time. But it’s also great for us because it allows us to prepare for playing in the postseason.”

    With the most experience of any tournament teams against Big Ten powerhouses, the Illini aim to have a good tournament showing and advance to their 12th Sweet 16.

    “The top teams from the Big Ten are all very good teams, and I’m sure they’ll do well,” Belter said. “We’re just hoping to meet them in the tournament for another shot at them.”