Illinois volleyball drowns out Cougars’ roar

By Anthony Zilis

The Southern Illinois-Edwardsville volleyball team wanted to prove it belonged when it faced No. 23 Illinois in its first season in Division I play.

“Of all of our opponents so far, we knew the least about SIU (Edwardsville). We were really kind of going into an unknown,” said Illinois coach Don Hardin.

But the Illini (10-2) sent a message to the Cougars in a 25-18, 25-13, 25-13 sweep.

The message – welcome to the Big Show.

The SIUE defense was full of holes, allowing Laura DeBruler, who had a game-high 13 kills and only three errors, to take big swings that drew even bigger cheers from the crowd. Hardin was politically correct when asked about DeBruler’s attacking efficiency.

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“Saying (DeBruler had open hits) would actually be insulting to SIU-Edwardsville, as they are really doing a good job of representing themselves in their first year in Division I play,” he said.

After a deceivingly close first set, in which the Illini never looked legitimately challenged, the Cougars (2-5) were never within reach.

Through the second set, the Illini had a .359 hitting percentage and DeBruler was errorless. The last set was a blowout, as the Illini used two five-point runs and a six-point run to put away last year’s No. 14 team in Division II.

But senior setter Lizzie Bazzetta said Friday wasn’t just about winning or losing, it was about keeping a level head the entire game.

“That was our focus when we came out. No matter what they were going to do, we were trying to maintain our focus on our side,” she said.

After the Illini had 27 errors Tuesday against Illinois State, DeBruler said working on chemistry between setters and hitters was key for Illinois on Friday.

“Just relaxing a little bit and focusing on getting good passes to go to both hitters (was important),” she said.

That connection was apparent for the Illini, who spread the ball around with at least 13 attacks from five different players. The Orange and Blue ended the game with a .306 hitting percentage.

Hardin said it was important for the Illini to get out of the game with as little wear and tear as possible, finishing a stretch in which they played five games in eight days.

“I think the team wanted to end it on a smooth performance, not have unnecessary games,” he said. “We really haven’t been able to practice that much.”

The Illini will open up Big Ten play on the road with a Friday matchup at Indiana (8-5), followed by a Saturday matchup at No. 1 Penn State (12-0).