Illinois volleyball looks to end another streak

By Mike Czapar

The Illinois women’s volleyball team kicks off its NCAA tournament action Friday at 4 p.m. against head coach Don Hardin’s former team, No. 19 Louisville (28-2). The first and second rounds of the tournament will be hosted by No. 16 Missouri, and the winner of the Illinois-Louisville match will take on the winner of the Missouri-Arkansas match.

The Illini are familiar with Louisville thanks to their NCAA tournament match-up in last year’s second round Illinois victory at Huff Hall.

The team certainly has its work cut out for them, facing a Cardinal team that has not lost a single game in its last 18 matches.

Hardin said the winning streak shows how focused the talented Louisville squad is and anticipates an intense battle.

“They’re a very good blocking and hitting team,” Hardin said. “They’re going to come at us really hard because we beat them last time at home. Most of the players are returning and the loss doesn’t sit well with them. They’re very versatile with their attack and they don’t really have one go-to player.”

This weekend is the final NCAA tournament for the three Illinois seniors, and the team has high hopes of keeping the season alive into the tournament.

Senior outside hitter Jessica Belter said she is excited about Friday’s match, and said the team is prepared.

“Practice this week has been really focused,” Belter said. “We’re really getting our team energy back – it just feels good. The Louisville defense is not as good as their offense, so that’s really what our target is going to be on. We want to be really aggressive with our swings and play strong defense on our side.”

Illinois is no stranger to playing teams with impressive accomplishments such as Louisville. This year’s NCAA rankings feature three Big Ten teams in the top five, with whom the Illini have battled on six occasions.

Illinois has ended several teams’ winning streaks this season, including two-time defending national champion USC’s monstrous 64-game winning campaign.

Junior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter said the Illini have benefited from playing such a tough schedule, and are ready to begin postseason play.

“We’re tying to focus on us,” VanMeter said. “What’s great about our conference is that we play ranked teams almost every weekend, so we always have to be ready for big games. Some other teams don’t get that type of competition during the season.”

If the Illini are victorious Friday they will likely take on host Missouri – another squad with whom Illinois is quite familiar, having also competed against them in past NCAA tournament action.

However, the Illini cannot even look at Missouri right now due to the finality of postseason losses.

“During the postseason you play like there’s no tomorrow because there might not be,” Hardin said. “During the year, we would have scouted Missouri, anticipating the match on Saturday, but you can’t do that during the postseason. We’re totally focused on Louisville.”