Volleyball hopes to improve standing against UM, MSU

Illinois player Rachel Van Meter spikes the ball during the second of four games versus Minnesota at Huff Hall on Oct. 16. Van Meter had 28 kills throughout the match. Peter Hoffman

Illinois player Rachel Van Meter spikes the ball during the second of four games versus Minnesota at Huff Hall on Oct. 16. Van Meter had 28 kills throughout the match. Peter Hoffman

By Troy Murray

Illinois volleyball begins the second half of Big Ten conference play this weekend at home against Michigan and Michigan State in position to make a move in the conference.

Although the team is tied for tenth place with Indiana, only two games separate the Illini from sixth place, the spot Michigan currently holds. Only five teams in the league are above .500 in conference play: Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota.

The fact that Illinois is within striking distance does not seem to be changing head coach Don Hardin’s mindset.

“Can we win on Friday? Yeah and that’s all I can hope for,” said Hardin. “This team needs to stay focused and take it one game at a time.”

If Hardin hopes to win on Friday and complete the season sweep against Michigan State, his team will have to contain one of the top offensive producers in the country. Michigan State redshirt sophomore Katie Johnson ranks eighth in the country in kills per game with 5.13.

In the first match against the Spartans, Johnson was sidelined with an injury for the first two games, but still contributed 14 kills in the rest of the match.

“Johnson is outstanding,” Hardin said. “We have her on our scouting report. We really have to cool her jets.”

Against Michigan on Oct. 7, the Wolverines won the match in three straight games and dominated in almost every category. The most telling statistic, though, was the 12 aces Michigan put up against Illinois, a figure that Hardin hopes the Illini can deal with the second time around.

“We’ve been doing that everyday, it wasn’t just Michigan,” Hardin said. “We had a ton of aces against us for two or three weeks, but we keep getting better. It’s not a matter of making adjustments. You have to make the players stronger and they have to improve.”

Illinois’ last win at home was Sept. 16 against Eastern Illinois in the Illini Classic. Even though the Illini have been hard-pressed for wins at home, Hardin said it’s good to be back at Huff Hall.

“It’s always better to play at home,” Hardin said. “It’d be especially good if we put a good performance out on the floor. I think people would be impressed to see what we’ve worked through and came out looking like a good team in the second half.”

The team is trying to figure out who will be the setter for the rest of the year. In last weekend’s games, sophomore Stephanie Obermeier replaced freshman setter Lizzie Bazzetta half way through the game and parked the Illinois offense. Hardin said it will be a game-time decision to see who starts at setter.

Senior outside hitter Rasa Virsilaite continues to wear a splint on her right hand after breaking her pinky finger a month ago. Hardin said Virsilaite has a couple more weeks of wearing the splint.

Through the first half of the season, Illinois is 2-8 in the Big Ten, but Hardin said he believes that all that could change in the second half.

“We think that in the second half, even with our hardships we’ve had and even with the problems we’ve had, we can make improvements and can make a run at any team in the nation,” Hardin said. “I believe that and I hope all the players believe that. I think they’re starting to.”