VanMeter gets 1,500th kill

By Lucas Deal

After a pair of big wins at home last weekend, the Illinois volleyball team entered Wisconsin on Friday night excited and bursting with confidence.

They left hours later dazed and confused.

The Illini played toe-to-toe with the 10-ranked Badgers for much of the night, but in the end, not even senior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter’s 1,500th career kill was enough to propel the Illini over the hump as they fell to the Badgers 30-22, 23-30, 30-24, 26-30, 15-12 in Madison.

Friday’s loss, coupled with a depressing 30-21, 25-30, 30-26 and 30-25 defeat at Northwestern the following night drops Illinois’ overall record to 13-12, 4-10 in the Big Ten. The Illini are currently tied with Iowa for ninth in the conference.

“This was one of those weekends where a few points here and there changed the entire outlook,” Illinois head coach Don Hardin said. “We played a phenomenal match against Wisconsin on Friday and I really thought we would win. So to lose that match and then come here (to Northwestern) and lose, it’s something we need to learn from and rebound from.”

The Illini entered the weekend with high hopes of turning their season around and looked more than ready to do so when they took the court against the Badgers on Friday night.

After Wisconsin (18-4, 10-3) opened the match with 30-22 win, Illinois quickly responded to take game two 30-23. Both teams had their chances early in game three before Wisconsin pulled ahead and held off a late Illini rally to win 30-24.

With their backs against the wall in game four, the Illini came out firing. They opened the game with a 7-1 run, and even after Wisconsin rallied to take a 20-18 advantage never seemed flustered and eventually won the game 30-26.

In game five, neither team could find their rhythm early as the lead changed five times. Illinois led as late as 8-7, but Badgers eventually held on for a 15-10 win.

Hardin said the loss was very hard to take because of the way the Illini played, but was still glad to see VanMeter succeed.

“We demand a lot from her and she continues to do everything we ask and never complains about the workload,” he said. “I don’t think she could have been able to do this without the work she’s done and the changes she’s gone through.”

VanMeter finished the match with 27 kills and added 22 more against Northwestern to finish the weekend with 1,539 kills, fifth on Illinois’ all-time kills list.

With the performances, VanMeter is now ranked second and third in Illinois’ single-season attacks and kills leaders’ all-time list as well. Add that to an already stellar 5.78 kills per game average and Hardin thinks VanMeter deserves serious consideration for All-American honors.

“I think, with Rachel, you have to ask if she is good enough to be an All-American,” he said. “She’s had some big matches, but will people still notice her despite our struggles? We haven’t really played well enough for her to be able to win a conference player of the year award, but I think if a couple more bounces would have went our way she could be in contention for that, too.”

Statistically, Friday’s match was one of the best the Illini have played all season. In addition to VanMeter’s performance, five Illini reached double digits in kills and three added double-digit digs.

Unfortunately, the great statistics did not carry over against the Wildcats on Saturday. Northwestern (14-10, 5-9) opened the match with a 30-21 win and Illinois quickly responded to take game two.

Game three proved to be the match’s turning point as Northwestern was able to hold off several Illini comeback attempts en route to a 30-26 win. The Illini stayed right with the Wildcats again in game four, but didn’t quite have enough as Northwestern held on.

“These are tough matches to lose,” Hardin said. “When you have a weekend like we’ve had you can lose confidence and the team can continue to struggle or you can dig in and fight back. We need to be able to fight back.”