Forget football, Illini volleyball travels to Penn State



By Anthony Zilis

There’s a big game being played this Saturday in State College, Pa., that Illini fans might have heard about.

Two ranked teams, Illinois and Penn State, face off in the first weekend of Big Ten play – one of the biggest matchups of the season coming in late September.

Not to mention there’s a football game between the two teams Saturday.

But first, the No. 20 Illinois volleyball team will face off against No. 1 Penn State on Friday.

The following day the team’s match against border state rival Indiana will be an encore for the Illini.

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As his team faces off against the defending national champions, Illinois volleyball coach Don Hardin knows the season is bigger than just one game.

“I think this team has a good idea of the 20-match picture,” Hardin said. “How you start is not as important as how you do throughout.”

But don’t get him wrong, Hardin never said Saturday’s game isn’t important or that he hasn’t thought about what a victory would do for his team.

“It would be pretty remarkable, but then we’d have to bring the team back down to earth,” he said. “You can win these first two or lose these first two and finish good or bad.”

But a win Saturday isn’t so unrealistic for a team who took then-No. 2 Penn State to a fifth set last season.

“Last year we stuck with them. They’re a great team, but we know we can beat them,” senior libero Ashley Edinger said.

Winning will be a tough task against a team that is not only undefeated, but hasn’t lost a set all season. And that includes wins against now-No. 7 Hawaii and now-No. 4 UCLA.

In the big showdown with Penn State, it will be difficult for the Illini not to look past perennial middle-of-the-table Big Ten rival Indiana.

Hardin knows Indiana, 8-2 in its last 10 games, will come out ready to play in the conference opener.

“Indiana expects to beat us,” he said.

“Every team in the Big Ten knows they need to protect that home court. I really hope they’re focused on Indiana.”

Edinger knows her team will regret looking past Indiana, which the Illini split a pair of matches with last season.

“Big Ten’s a new season, you never know what’s going to happen,” Edinger said.

Junior middle blocker Abby Nelson knows the Illini strive to be where Penn State is right now: No. 1, undefeated and king of the hill. On Saturday, they’ll get that chance to knock them off.

“We focus a lot on our process and our team,” Nelson said. “We want to be that team that people look to. We want to build our own team for that.”