Tough matches ahead to offset happy return home for Illini

Senior Meghan Macdonald gets under the ball for a bump during practice in Huff Hall, Wednesday. Adam Babcock

Senior Meghan Macdonald gets under the ball for a bump during practice in Huff Hall, Wednesday. Adam Babcock

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois volleyball team plays its first home match in more than two weeks tonight when it hosts Dayton at 7 p.m. at Huff Hall.

The Illini (8-1) have been on the road since winning the State Farm Illini Classic three weekends ago. While away from campus, the team has played very well.

They won the Marquette Kick-Off Tournament in Milwaukee two weeks ago and finished second at the GlaxoSmithKline Invitational in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Saturday.

Illini head coach Don Hardin has been pleased with how his team has played on the road this season but is glad to finally be back in the friendly confines of Huff Hall.

That said, Hardin knows tonight’s match will be tough.

“Well, it’s a plus and minus (to be at home),” Hardin said. “On one hand, we get to be in front of our crowd and play in a gym we’re comfortable with; we can sleep in our own beds. It’s a minus because it’s early in the week. We get one practice; then we have to go.”

Illinois junior Vicki Brown has also continued to improve since the team left on its recent road trip.

Brown has been an All-Tournament selection in each of Illinois’ first three events, and her play has garnered comparisons to last year’s star, Rachel VanMeter.

“She’s been great all year, even better than Rachel in some respects,” Hardin said. “She’s only a junior, but she’s hitting numbers that go way beyond what Rachel did. Then again, because she is a middle (blocker), she gets better quality attempts. She’s in a league by herself right now.”

Dayton enters tonight’s match with a 7-3 record and is coming off a 3-0 victory over Indiana in the Marriott Flyer Invitational at Dayton.

All seven of Dayton’s wins have been 3-0 sweeps, including a convincing win over No. 18-ranked Arizona in the Courtyard by Marriott Airport East Classic in Louisville, Kentucky two weekends ago.

The Flyers’ three losses have all been against ranked teams: No. 12 Louisville, No. 14 Purdue and No. 22 LSU.

With a schedule that stiff, Hardin said he doesn’t expect his team to be able to sneak up on the Flyers.

He also said he thinks the match should be a good measuring stick for how far his team has progressed thus far and how much better they need to be for the Big Ten season.

“The Wichita State match was similar to a Big Ten match. Dayton definitely will be,” Hardin said.

“Dayton is a really good team, and this is a much different level of volleyball than what fans saw in the first week of play,” he added.