Illinois volleyball drops straight-set match to flawless Penn State

Illinois outsider hitter Laura DeBruler goes up against Southern Illinois on Sept. 19. The Illini lost in straight sets to Penn State on Saturday. Erica Magda

Johnny Chiang

Illinois outsider hitter Laura DeBruler goes up against Southern Illinois on Sept. 19. The Illini lost in straight sets to Penn State on Saturday. Erica Magda

By Anthony Zilis

When the words “Penn State volleyball” are uttered, thoughts come to mind of the ’72 Dolphins, who had a perfect season, and the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls, who were about as close to perfect as NBA teams get.

Then go one step further.

With a straight-set victory over No. 20 Illinois (25-16, 25-19, 25-12) on Saturday, the No. 1 Nittany Lions are not only perfect at 14-0, but the defending national champions haven’t dropped a set all season.

In his 11th season as Illini head coach, Don Hardin has seen a lot of great teams, but Penn State has put itself above the rest.

“They’re the most talented team I’ve seen in my coaching time,” Hardin said of a team that includes three All-American hitters.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    Even so, the Illini were confident going into the opening weekend of the Big Ten season, already having beaten two ranked opponents this season.

    But Saturday was not the Illini’s day, as they failed to execute particular fundamentals previously worked to perfection, like the block.

    It wasn’t due to an inept Illini squad, but rather a Penn State offense that has only been blocked 42 times this year. The Illini, considered a good hitting team, have been blocked 97.5 times.

    “It’s pretty tough (to block) when you have big (6-foot-5-inch) girls hitting over your blockers,” libero Ashley Edinger said.

    In fact, it was a credit to the Illini that they were able to total five team blocks, seeing as only two other teams have achieved a higher number against Penn State all season.

    The Illini stuck with the best team in the country for the first two sets, and they were still in the game at 20-16 in the first set and 21-16 in the second.

    But in the third set, Illinois got away from the type of volleyball that has led it to a No. 20 ranking.

    Edinger said that in the third set the Illini “tried to do something different.”

    “We’re not that type of team that can change too much,” she said.

    The Illini tried to raise their tempo in the final set. This allowed the Nittany Lions to score easy points and jump out to a 20-6 lead, eventually taking the set and winning the match.

    “We know going into games that we have to stay on a keel that works for us,” Hardin said.

    So, after already dismantling four ranked teams in the young season, will Penn State lose a match all season?

    “They’re going to have to break down or have another team have a special night against them,” Hardin said.

    On Friday, the Illini managed to beat Indiana in four sets after dropping the first.

    Outside hitter Kylie McCulley, who had 20 kills and hit .367 over the two games, said her team didn’t panic after the first set.

    “We just knew after the first set what we needed to do to finish it,” she said.

    The Illini closed out the Hoosiers (8-6, 0-2) with the help of Laura DeBruler, who had 20 kills, and Ashley Edinger, who had 16 digs.

    With a 1-1 record, the Illini completed what could arguably be one of its toughest road trips of the season.

    But Hardin isn’t unhappy with where his team stands.

    “I think the players realize Indiana was a tough match,” Hardin said. “This weekend gave them a taste of the effort that’s going to be required during the Big Ten season.”