Illini need to set pace to defeat opponents



By Kate Munson

If there is one lesson the No. 17 Illinois volleyball squad learned last weekend when it defeated Ohio State and No. 22 Michigan on the road, it was that it plays best when it sets the pace. But the Illini know it won’t be as easy to run the match at their speed when they face Northwestern and No. 19 Wisconsin at Huff Hall this weekend.

“Our team really got a feel for the fact that their destiny is in their control and that if they focus and keep their attention on their game, they’re pretty darn good, and it’s not beneficial for them to try to play outside of that,” head coach Don Hardin said.

Now the team needs to transfer that consistency to Huff Hall.

“I think playing at home will definitely be a challenge for us, just because when we’re away we don’t have a crowd cheering us to like try to speed us up, but when we’re at home we have that, so it will be a challenge to continue to play at our pace,” sophomore middle blocker Johannah Bangert said.

With just one team, Santa Clara, between the No. 17 Illini and the No. 19 Badgers in the national rankings, the matchup is especially significant.

But the Fighting Illini will also be playing for defensive pride, as the Big Ten Co-Defensive Players of the Week will face off Sunday. Bangert and Wisconsin sophomore libero Kim Kuzma shared the honor after each recorded standout weekends. Bangert had 15 blocks on the weekend and a .714 attack percentage in Illinois’ win against Michigan. Meanwhile, Kuzma averaged 5.4 digs per set as Wisconsin defeated Northwestern and Michigan State.

Offensively, the Badgers are led by junior outside hitter Brittney Dolgner (195 kills) and senior outside hitter and middle blocker Audra Jeffers, who has 161 kills while hitting .334.

“I think having Wisconsin here at home is a real big one for us, especially against them we have to try to protect home turf,” Hardin said.

But before the Fighting Illini can defend Huff Hall against the Badgers, they will have to take care of Northwestern on Friday.

The Wildcats are currently 0-6 in the Big Ten and mired in a seven-match losing streak. But Hardin doesn’t want his team to take the match lightly.

“Northwestern has to be the best seven-match (losing) streak team in the country right now. We’ve watched them play and they’re playing really good volleyball to be 0-6 in the Big Ten, too good to be 0-6 in the Big Ten,” Hardin said. “We’re really trying to caution our team not to be distracted by that.”

Wildcats head coach Keylor Chan agrees that his team is better than their record indicates.

“I would say that I feel that we can perform at I think a little higher level than we’ve been performing and I think that this is part of the process this team is learning how to do, is to learn how to perform and actually hit the end result which is to get wins in the Big Ten,” Chan said.

Sophomore middle blocker Sabel Moffett has been one bright spot for the Wildcats, tallying 178 kills while hitting .336.

Whatever the opponent’s record, sophomore outside hitter Laura DeBruler said the Illini aren’t taking either match this weekend for granted.

“I know both teams are going to be really tough, so hopefully if we just play our game and keep our cool, we’ll be good,” DeBruler said.