Women learn what a difference a weekend of Big Ten play makes

By Troy Murray

As the start of the second half of Big Ten play began this weekend, Illinois was tied for 10th place with a 2-8 record. Things looked bleak and a spot in the NCAA tournament at the end of the season seemed to be slipping away.

Going into the weekend, the Illini had lost four matches in a row and had not won a match at home since Sept. 16 against Eastern Illinois.

What a difference a weekend makes.

Everything went right for the Illinois volleyball team this weekend as the team won both games against teams ahead of them in the Big Ten standings. Illinois jumped up four spots in the conference standings, going from tied for 10th before Friday’s game, to tied for sixth with two other teams after beating both Michigan State and Michigan in four games each.

“We really needed this one,” head coach Don Hardin said. “You could see we were shaky for awhile, and they had a little trouble in believing in it at times. We really had a couple players answer the call which is really good to see.”

Friday’s much-anticipated matchup against Michigan State proved to be just that, as two heavy-hitters faced off. Two outside hitters ranking amongst the best in the nation in kills per game went up against each other.

Illinois senior Rachel VanMeter, currently second in the nation with 5.78 kills per game, and Michigan State sophomore Katie Johnson, eighth in the nation with 5.13 kills per game, showed the fans at Huff Hall why both players were highly publicized.

VanMeter led the way offensively for the Illini with 20 kills, while Johnson did much of the same, posting 30 kills in the loss to Illinois.

Two other Illinois players managed to hit double-digit kills on the night. Junior middle blocker Meghan Macdonald hit .421 on the night with 11 kills in 19 chances, while sophomore middle blocker Vicki Brown had 13 kills in 22 swings for a .364 hitting percentage.

But senior outside hitter Rasa Virsilaite showed heart while sporting a splint on her right hand and provided a spark for the Illini over the weekend. Virsilaite contributed nine kills, 12 digs, four block assists and one ace on the night.

“I thought she was the critical factor in game two,” Hardin said. “Her passing so stable, she had some huge shots and made some big blocks. In game two, she took over when things were in doubt.”

In the first match of the year against Michigan on Oct. 7, Illinois was beaten badly in three games. Michigan dominated almost every offensive category, racking up 12 service aces on the game, out-hitting and out-blocking Illinois, 8.5-4.

The rematch Saturday night at Huff Hall was a completely different story. Not only did Illinois out-block the Wolverines 15-9 on the night, they held Michigan to an incredible -.026 hitting percentage in the second game of the match and out-aced Michigan for only the second time all season.

“This is huge for our block and our defense,” Hardin said. “To slow them really shows progress.”

Michigan jumped out to the early lead winning game one, and it looked like the match would be a repeat of the first of the year, but Illinois took the next three matches and got the win.

“I didn’t say anything to the girls (after game one), it was what they said to each other,” Hardin said. “I think they just went out with a more determined attitude and backed it up with their play. I think they were a little upset that they let the first game slip away.”

Injury Report

Junior defensive specialist Beth Vrdsky was taken out of the fourth game against Michigan due to a sprained MCL. Vrdsky played through the injury for much of the match with a brace on her right leg. The injury will be looked at later this week.