Illini win State Farm Classic

Suzanne Stelmasek

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois volleyball team opened the 2006 season with a bang over the weekend, winning the State Farm Illini Classic at Huff Hall.

The Illini (3-0) beat Illinois State, Winthrop and Wisconsin-Milwaukee en route to the tournament title; and three Illini players – including tournament MVP Vicki Brown – were named to the All-Tournament team.

“All of these teams are very good, well-coached, excellent programs and they are teams that nobody wants to lose to,” Illinois head coach Don Hardin said. “We needed this test for this team; we needed to gain this confidence for the Big Ten season.”

The Illini opened the tournament on Friday night against rival Illinois State and won in four games, 30-26, 30-20, 28-30 and 30-24. Outside hitter Kayani Turner led the Illini with 17 kills and Brown added 16 as the Illini simply overpowered the Redbirds.

“There were some things we just didn’t have an answer for,” Illinois State coach Sharon Dingman said. “If you look at Vicki (Brown), that’s as good as I’ve ever seen a player improve in a year. She’s a completely different player now and we didn’t have the ability to stop her.”

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Things would only get better for Illinois on Saturday as the Illini made quick work of two 2005 NCAA Tournament teams in Winthrop and UW-Milwaukee. The Illini beat Winthrop 30-21, 30-21 and 30-18 on Saturday afternoon and followed that up with a 30-16, 30-27 and 30-26 victory over UW-Milwaukee in the nightcap.

Hardin said he felt his team played much better on Saturday in comparison to Friday night’s performance, but added that the Illini still need to get better if they plan to compete with the best in the Big Ten.

For the weekend, Brown led the Illini with 45 kills and a .413 hitting percentage while fellow All-Tourney team member Turner finished right behind her with 44 kills and a .287 hitting percentage.

“It’s exciting to win an award, but then again, you have to look at it as they’re rewarding you for playing hard,” Brown said about her MVP award. “It’s awesome to win, but I’m already looking past it. Now that I have it I start looking towards next weekend.”

Illini freshman libero Ashley Edinger was Illinois’ third representative on the All-Tournament team while setter Lizzie Bazzetta nearly missed being the fourth.

“Ashley played great all weekend, but I thought Lizzie was phenomenal,” Hardin said. “She got a few votes for All-Tournament team. I really hoped she’d get it. She was all over the court tonight.”

Other members of the All-Tournament team were M.C. Richmond of Illinois State, Savoy native Melissa David of UW-Milwaukee and Pohai Nu’uhiwa and Taryn Surbaugh of Winthrop.

The Illini will hit the road for the first time this Friday when they participate in the Marquette Kick-Off Tournament in Milwaukee. Illinois will meet Ole Miss, Marquette and Loyola-Chicago during the three-day event.