Volleyball hopes to extend winning streak on road against Wisconsin

Rachel VanMeter (15) of Illinois spikes the ball past Audra Jeffers (15) of Wisconson at Huff Hall on Saturday. Illinois lost to Wisconson 3-0. Jamey Fenske

Rachel VanMeter (15) of Illinois spikes the ball past Audra Jeffers (15) of Wisconson at Huff Hall on Saturday. Illinois lost to Wisconson 3-0. Jamey Fenske

By Lucas Deal

Sporting a two-game winning streak for the first time in nearly two months, the Illinois volleyball team hits the road this weekend with matches at No. 10 Wisconsin and Northwestern.

The Illini struggled through the first half of the Big Ten season with a 2-8 record, but wins over Michigan and Michigan State last weekend at Huff Hall gave the Illini the chance to start the second half off on the right foot.

“This past weekend was a breakthrough point for us,” said sophomore middle blocker Vicki Brown, “We’ve been working really hard on trying to do different things and it finally showed through for us.”

The Illini enter this Friday’s match against the Badgers with a 13-10 overall record and are in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Big Ten at 4-8. While the Illini may no longer have a shot at the conference title, a strong finish could possibly push the Illini into the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Ten has had at least six representatives in the tournament every year since 1997, including eight in 1999 and 2002. Among those 2002 conference representatives was a Northwestern team who finished the season 17-14 overall and 8-12 in the conference. If the Illini are able to split their last eight matches, they will finish this season with a record identical to Northwestern in 2002.

After opening the season 9-1, the Illini roster was rattled by various injuries which sent the team into a tailspin. As a result, head coach Don Hardin was forced to play an assortment of different lineups, which led to a string of matches where the Illini struggled with their consistency.

But the Illini appear to finally be back on the right track after last weekend’s victories, and Hardin hopes the team continues to improve.

“I think we’re on the beginning stages of expecting to win rather than playing not to lose, and there have been some key players who have really started to perform better,” he said.

The Illini are 0-2 against Wisconsin and Northwestern thus far this season. The Badgers rolled over the Illini at Huff Hall in early October and the Wildcats outlasted the Illini in a five-game thriller the same weekend. But, Hardin said, he is still confident that his team is good enough to win both matches.

“I believe we’re capable of beating both teams, and they’re both very important (matches),” Hardin said. “We can’t look ahead to Northwestern (on Saturday); we’ve got to stay focused on Friday night. Nothing would be a bigger crime than to have an opportunity to beat Wisconsin and to be looking ahead to Saturday’s match.”

Brown expects the team to come out playing well, and thinks they may be peaking at just the right time.

“I definitely see big changes for the rest of the season,” she said. “Everyone feels much better.”