Illini volleyball has rough weekend at home

Rasa Virsilaite spikes the ball on a play during the first of four games in the match versus Minnesota at Huff Hall on Saturday. Illinois lost the game 30-27, and the match 3 games to 1. Peter Hoffman

Rasa Virsilaite spikes the ball on a play during the first of four games in the match versus Minnesota at Huff Hall on Saturday. Illinois lost the game 30-27, and the match 3 games to 1. Peter Hoffman

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois volleyball team had its second straight winless homestand over the weekend, losing a pair of matches to Big Ten rivals Iowa and No. 9 Minnesota.

The Gophers entered Saturday’s match coming off a disappointing four-set loss at No. 21 Purdue the night before and got off to quick starts in each game en route to a 30-27, 30-27, 24-30 and 30-21 victory.

Outside hitter Rachel VanMeter carried the Illini (11-8, 2-6) for much of the match, recording a game-high 28 kills. VanMeter was aided by a stellar effort from setter Lizzie Bazzetta, who had 58 assists.

Illini head coach Don Hardin said he thought VanMeter and his team gave a valiant effort against the Gophers, but in the end just were not able to pull off the upset.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of a senior than I am of Rachel,” Hardin said. “She battled all the way through tonight. She was a leader, and she’s giving the other players on the team a bar that they have to live up to.”

VanMeter said she just wanted to win.

“This is my last round at everything and I’m going to give it everything I got and do the best I can for the team and hope everyone else will follow,” she said.

In the first two matches, the Illini overcame slow starts and tied each match at 26, but ultimately were unable to pick up a win.

When they finally broke through in game three, it was VanMeter leading the way. The senior carried the Illini on her back, recording five kills and a service ace in Illinois’ last nine points as the Illini ended the match with a 9-3 run.

VanMeter continued her red-hot play in game four, but the Gophers responded with a great offensive performance to win the match.

Afterward, an expectedly frustrated Hardin said his team just needs to be more consistent. While the team showed flashes of brilliance, he said the Illini will be unable to compete with a team as good as the Gophers until they can play an entire match mistake- free.

“There are flashes of great play out there and it must be frustrating for fans and other people watching because they’ll see eight or ten pretty awesome plays in a row and then the bottom will fall out,” he said. “I think our whole game needs to continue to improve, not just one thing we can single out.”

The loss seemed to compound an already tough weekend, as the Illini were coming off a heartbreaking 30-27, 30-26 and 35-33 loss to Iowa (13-7, 3-4) on Friday.

In the first game, the Illini jumped out to an early lead and were able to hold the Hawkeyes at bay for most of the match before falling by three.

The Illini recorded a solid hitting percentage in the game, but several service errors proved to be the difference.

“In game one, we missed seven serves,” Hardin said. “We were outscored and aced by about a seven-point margin, and it was a tight game.”

In the second game, the Hawkeyes were able to take advantage of Illinois’ errors right from the start and never trailed on the way to the victory.

The third game of the match was the heartbreaker. The Illini opened with a vengeance to take an early lead. The Hawkeyes rallied and both teams shared blows for the rest of the match, with the Illini riding the right arms of Meghan Macdonald and VanMeter to a 30-29 lead.

Iowa outside hitter Tiana Costanzo then appeared to misfire on a kill attempt to give Illinois a 31-29 win, but net referee Mike Paull ruled the kill had been tipped by an Illini player and that the match was not over.

Given new life, the Hawkeyes took command and hung on for the win.

After the match, Macdonald seemed more discouraged than depressed.

“It’s frustrating losing to Iowa, but I think everyone’s pushing hard and every team we play is going to be good,” Macdonald said. “It’s just hard because we’re really trying to find our rhythm right now, and we’re doing good things out, but it’s just hard finding our rhythm.”

Macdonald finished with a match-high 15 kills and VanMeter added 14. While the Illini recorded 56 kills in the match, 15 service errors proved to be the difference.

And while Hardin knows the mistakes are correctable, he is beginning to wonder how long it’s going to take to get the team playing at its full potential.

“I just ask people to stick with us because this team is going to work through this,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we’re just going to keep working until we get through it.”