Volleyball second in own tourney

Middle blocker Megan McDonald hits the ball over the net at the 22nd-annual State Farm Illini Classic match aginst Eastern Illinois on Friday at Huff Hall. Illinois won 3-2. Tessa Pelias

Middle blocker Megan McDonald hits the ball over the net at the 22nd-annual State Farm Illini Classic match aginst Eastern Illinois on Friday at Huff Hall. Illinois won 3-2. Tessa Pelias

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois volleyball team lost its first home match of the season on Saturday, falling 30-26, 30-26 and 32-30 to Rice in the championship of the State Farm Illini Classic at Huff Hall.

With a roster ravaged by injuries, the Illini (9-2) were unable to muster any sort of offensive attack against the Owls (8-2), and recorded a meager .168 hitting percentage in the match.

Vicki Brown and Kayani Turner each recorded 10 kills for the Illini, while Meghan Macdonald added nine and Rachel VanMeter had eight. Freshman setter Lizzie Bazzetta added four kills while making her first career start at outside hitter.

Illini head coach Don Hardin was impressed by Bazzetta’s performance.

“I was especially proud of Lizzie, I thought for her to come into that spot as a freshman and have to fill in, in that role, that’s pretty impressive,” he said. “She was pretty remarkable.”

Bazzetta’s ability to play different positions is huge for the Illini as the team’s injuries continue to mount.

Middle blockers Jen Hynds and Rachel Henderson are both sidelined with injuries. Hynds, a sophomore, is rehabbing from surgery, while Henderson, a freshman, is suffering from mononucleosis.

Illinois’ two seniors, Rachel VanMeter and Rasa Virsilaite, were also banged up. VanMeter, a unanimous preseason all-Big Ten selection, dealt with headaches over the weekend and struggled with her hitting accuracy.

Virsilaite, who Hardin considers to be one of the Illini’s best passers, broke her right pinky in Friday night’s win against Eastern Illinois and was unable to play against Rice.

Hardin is unsure of when she will return.

“We expected it might be broke, but sometimes a player can play with a broken finger, depending on where the fracture is,” he said. “Hers is in a spot that is very dangerous and needs some time to heal. It could be two weeks, but we have no idea.”

The Illini opened the tournament on Friday night with a lengthy five-game win over Eastern Illinois.

Macdonald led the Illini with a career-high 20 kills and VanMeter added 19. Junior Beth Vrdsky also had a good night, setting a season-high with 36 digs.

“It was great to see that we could come back at the end,” Macdonald said. “It was a little disappointing how we came out in the beginning, but I really like how we finished.”

Illinois’ injuries proved to be too much. Despite leading in all three matches, the Illini were unable to pull out any wins against the Owls.

In the first game, the Illini jumped out to an early 10-5 lead, but Rice quickly rebounded to tie the game at 11. The two teams traded blows for a while before Rice took the lead for good at 18-17 en route to the win.

In the second match, the Illini jumped out in front again 12-9, before the Owls quickly rallied. Tied at 25 after a kill by Turner, Rice outscored the Illini 5-1 over the last six points to take the match.

After a 15-minute intermission, the Illini came out with a vengeance in game three, taking an early four-point lead. Rice cut the lead to three at 10-7 before the Illini took off again pushing their lead to 19-12.

But the Owls wouldn’t give up and rallied to tie the match at 26. The Illini scored three of the next four points to reach game point at 29-27, but missed long on three straight offensive attacks to fall behind 30-29. Rice finished the match three plays later.

“It didn’t turn out the way we wanted to, but we’re working it out,” Vrdsky said.

Both Macdonald and Brown were named to the all-tournament first team, with Rice’s Olaya Pazo taking home MVP honors.

Pazo had a match-high 17 kills against the Illini.

The Illini will have the week off before beginning the Big Ten season this weekend at No. 12 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State.

Yet as the injuries continue to mount, Hardin said he is beginning to wonder if it will ever end.

“We’re trying not to think in the past as much as getting everyone thinking about the matches coming up,” he said. “If we could just play through a couple weeks and win a match or two, even if we don’t, we could be getting people back into the lineup and really take a surge.

“I’ve been through one or two years like this before, unfortunately, and at the end of it you don’t remember all the pain and struggle; you remember how you got through it.”