Women travel to West Lafayette to face No. 17 Purdue

By Lucas Deal

For the first time in over a month, the Illini volleyball team will play a mid-week game tonight when it takes on No. 17 Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.

The Illini have not played a weekday game since Sept. 7, when they beat Loyola 30-18, 30-22 and 30-13 at Huff Hall.

But a lot has changed since the Loyola match. The Illini have won only five matches since then and have lost seven of their past nine. They have also lost five straight home matches. Illinois is currently 11-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten, with both conference wins coming on the road.

Purdue, on the other hand, enters tonight’s match having won five straight matches and currently sits tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 5-3. The Boilermakers are 16-3 overall. Last weekend, Purdue rolled over No. 12 Minnesota and Iowa on consecutive days, while the Illini lost to both teams.

The Gophers took game one of Friday’s match 30-16, but the home-team Boilermakers responded to win the next three games and continued their hot play by sweeping Iowa on Saturday.

“Purdue is a great serving and defensive team,” Illini head coach Don Hardin said. “They’re very good at ball control, and they have experience at several positions including setter.”

If the Illini are able to pull of the upset, Hardin said the defense will need to step up. Last weekend, the Illini became the first team all season to record a .200 or better hitting percentage against Minnesota behind senior Rachel VanMeter’s 28 kills, but still lost the match 3-1. Minnesota hit an incredible .469 on attacks in the deciding game.

“Our defense struggled and we’ve been working on it, but despite what a lot of people may think, we had a lot of problems on offense too,” Hardin said. “We made a lot of mental mistakes, which cost us points during the game.”

While the Illini were winless against the Boilermakers in 2004, Illinois has won six of the last eight matches between the two teams and leads the all-time series 34-28. The Illini are 13-5 against Purdue under Hardin.

“In past years, I think we’ve usually had a little more experience and athletic ability (than Purdue), but this year it’s kind of evened out,” he said. “They’ve got a good new coach over there, and they’re on a pretty good run right now.”

With Saturday’s match at Indiana marking the halfway point in the conference season, the Illini cannot wait much longer for a hot streak to come along. If they do, it may be too late to make an impact, Hardin said.

“I’d be lying if I said the team isn’t rattled a little bit right now, because they are,” he said. “But I think they’re still very determined and extremely hard working.”

He added, “It’s also good that we’re going into this match really wanting to get things going well, because it could spring us to play better from now on. We’re getting better and better every time out.”