Volleyball defeats pair of ranked opponents en route to undefeated weekend

By Kate Munson

The State Farm Illini Classic pitted Illinois against a pair of ranked opponents and a strong, veteran team. But the unranked Illini were the only team in the Classic to best all three of their opponents.

On Friday, Illinois faced off against North Carolina and defeated the Tar Heels in three sets, 25-21, 25-14 and 25-12. Leading the Fighting Illini defensively was specialist Ashley Edinger, who led all players with 19 digs in the match. Outside hitter Laura DeBruler added 15 digs of her own to go along with 14 kills.

“Laura is a very aggressive player and it is all or nothing for her. It has taken her awhile to really understand that there are times you can’t play that way,” head coach Don Hardin said. “She has really matured into her role. There were a couple of times tonight when she had an open net and she made a point out of it and made an exclamation point with her swing.”

But Illinois had to wait for Saturday to match up against ranked teams.

No. 23 New Mexico State promised to be a more competitive match, but the Illini did not take anything for granted.

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    “I can’t emphasize enough how seriously we took North Carolina and how worried we were about them. They are predicted to have a great year,” Hardin said Friday. “We don’t look at them and say this is the easy one and tomorrow is the two tough ones.”

    The Aggies took the Fighting Illini to four games, but Illinois’ offense and blocking ability proved to be too much for New Mexico.

    “It’s early and you expect mistakes to happen, we’ve certainly made many of them. But I give Oregon and Illinois credit,” Aggies head coach Mike Jordan said. “Illinois played us real solid today. They did a good job blocking, slowing us down. Our outside hitters didn’t play well enough.”

    DeBruler continued her offense for the Illini, tallying 20 kills in the match.

    “Obviously that’s a big win for us and we learned some things about ourselves during the course of the match,” Hardin said. “That’s the whole point here. We’re going to play great teams and we’re going to learn what we need to do to get better for the Big 10.”

    But it was the No. 11 Oregon match that would test the squad’s endurance the most.

    “Oregon is a legitimate ranked team,” Hardin said before the match. “I’m not saying that New Mexico State is not. They certainly are, but I think Oregon is legitimately a top-10, top-15 opponent and will end up there.”

    The Ducks dominated the first two sets, defeating Illinois 25-14 and 25-16. But the Fighting Illini fought back in sets two and three, pulling out 26-24 and 25-21 victories. In the fifth set, Illinois was able to hold on for a 15-13 victory, despite a late 4-0 run by the Ducks.

    “That was nice. I didn’t expect that,” Hardin said. “I think anybody who watched the way we got thumped in the first two games didn’t expect that kind of comeback.”

    Once again, DeBruler stepped up for Illinois, tallying 31 kills in the match.

    But DeBruler and the rest of the team still aren’t jumping to any conclusions about their season, even after an impressive weekend.

    “It was an awesome win, don’t get me wrong,” DeBruler said after the Oregon match. “But I know we have a ton of really tough competition coming up (next) weekend. I think one of our goals for this season is to not really worry about wins and losses, but if we are getting better after each match.”