No. 17 Illinois rallies around blocking

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Kate Munson

Two weeks ago, the volleyball team found itself at a critical turning point in its season.

A disheartening loss to lowly Northwestern dwelled on the minds of players and coaches as two ranked opponents prepared to invade Huff Hall. Anything less than an undefeated stretch at home would have spelled doom for the Illini’s national and conference rankings – it was up to the block to bail them out.

One of the most dependable elements of No. 17 Illinois’ defense carried it in a straight-set defeat of No. 19 Wisconsin on Oct. 18. Despite a strong offensive performance by sophomore outside hitter Laura DeBruler, it was the block that took center stage.

While Johannah Bangert, Michelle Bartsch and Abby Nelson combined for 16 blocks, the Illini out-blocked Wisconsin, re-established themselves in the Big Ten with a key in-conference win and haven’t looked back.

“At the beginning of the season, we lost a lot of first sets, and I think that’s one of the biggest things why now we’re starting out a lot stronger … we’re really focusing on giving that extra effort on the block right from the beginning,” Bangert said.

But the Illini block hasn’t always been able to dominate a match. Just one season ago, Illinois finished 10th in the Big Ten in blocking. Now, the squad has moved to 10th in the nation with 2.77 blocks per set, good for fourth in the Big Ten.

The improvement would have proved impossible without the contributions of the sophomore Bangert, who is tied for first in the nation in blocking with 1.58 blocks per set. For Bangert, the ranking is critical to the mission she has pursued since joining the program. Blocking is Bangert’s favorite part of the game, and when she chose Illinois, she committed to helping her new squad improve in that area.

“We went from being in the bottom in blocking last year to now being in the top of the Big Ten. It’s really exciting to just see how much it’s having an impact on our team and just see how much farther it can take us,” Bangert said.

Bangert’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by her coach or teammates. Head coach Don Hardin recognizes just how important the block is for the team and how hard Bangert is working to make the Illinois block one of the best in the country.

“Our team rallies around blocking, so (Bangert) is a leader in that regard. That’s how she can give her inspiration to us,” Hardin said.

“Sometimes she’s misfiring in different areas, but she’s such a great team player that she knows ‘While I’m learning on these other things, this is something I can do well, so I better bring it in spades.’ And she does. She inspires the team when she does it that way.”

But Bangert isn’t powering the Illini block alone.

After seeing limited playing time in 2007, Bangert’s fellow middle blocker, Nelson, has compiled 84 blocks this season (1.08 blocks per set). Nelson credits the improvement to the extensive amount of time she and Bangert spent working on their footwork and block in the spring.

“It was a really big focus for us because offensively we’re pretty good, so we really wanted to pick that part of our game up so we could be more well-rounded as middles,” Nelson said. “We knew the block would help us a lot, so we kind of focused on that and really worked hard.”

Nelson and Bangert may have worked hard to improve their blocking, but they couldn’t have anticipated that a freshman would have an immediate impact on the team. Bartsch has surprised not only her teammates, but also her coach, with her impressive blocking performance.

“I think we have a good blocking system and strategy and the technique work is paying off. We’ve spent a long time on the blocking, and it’s really come around,” Hardin said. “(Bartsch) is a little bit of a phenomenon because, as a freshman, she hasn’t had the full year of training at it and typically freshman are not good blockers, but she’s really picking up on it.”

Bangert admitted she was surprised by exactly how much the block has impacted the whole team. But the improved block is not only allowing increased opportunities for other Illini defenders, it also frustrates opponents, who are hitting just .151 against the Fighting Illini through 21 matches this season.

In the Wisconsin match, the Illini held the Badgers to .160 hitting. Hardin said it was an impressive defensive feat against a Wisconsin team that is third in hitting percentage in the Big Ten at .239.

Junior libero and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, Ashley Edinger is one Illini who has benefited from the improved block. She credits the blockers with allowing her to play more confidently because she can anticipate where they will be.

“I have a lot more trust in the block now. It helps on defense because I have to go in certain spots based on where our block goes,” Edinger said. “But I’m so … used to where they’re going to be that it helps out with defense because I know they’re going to get up there, and I know they’re always going to do the same thing.”

Edinger attributed Illinois’ recent success to their dynamic combination of defense and blocking.

“In the early season, I feel like that’s what we were missing was that extra umph from block and defense,” Edinger said. “But now it’s there and it’s showing. We’re taking care of business.”