Big Ten battle continues: No. 17 Illini to host No. 18 Michigan and Ohio State

By Kate Munson

No. 17 Illinois volleyball commences the second half of its Big Ten schedule this weekend when No. 18 Michigan and Ohio State confront the Illini (16-5, 7-3 Big Ten) at Huff Hall.

The Illini have already faced both teams once this season, winning both matches in straight sets on the road. But the squad isn’t resting on past accomplishments. They know they will have their work cut out for them in the second half of conference play.

“(The) second half of the Big Ten is definitely different than the first half,” junior libero Ashley Edinger said. “A lot of teams have made changes, have players back from injuries, so we’re just looking at it like a new start.”

No. 18 Michigan (18-4, 6-4 in Big Ten) features a player returning from injury, and it is rising in the standings, challenging the Illini in the Big Ten rankings.

Returning from injury, junior right side and libero Megan Bower is hitting .225 with 170 digs, despite missing seven sets. Bower did not face the Illini in Michigan, and head coach Don Hardin knows her addition is bolstering the Wolverines’ rotation.

“They’re coming into our gym a different team than the one we played just a couple weeks ago and they’re feeling a lot better about how they’re playing right now, so we’ll have our work cut out for us,” Hardin said. “But we just can do what we can do. We need to focus on the things we do well and keep battling back.”

The battle shouldn’t be as tough Saturday when the Fighting Illini take on the unranked Buckeyes (10-12, 1-9 Big Ten). Junior middle blocker Kristen Dozier leads the way for the Ohio State squad with 221 kills this season.

But Illinois isn’t paying much attention to its opponents’ records.

“We’re focusing a lot on us right now. We have a couple injuries, but we’re trying to focus on us and getting everyone back on the court,” sophomore middle blocker Abby Nelson said.

Entering the second half of conference play, the Illini are still hampered by injury, even though their 7-3 conference record might not show it. Hardin gives his squad credit for making the best out of what could have been a bad situation.

“The injuries have created the opportunity where we really don’t have any moves to make, it’s those eight players.” Hardin said. “The adversity worked to our advantage because they just had to toughen up and be in there and win with it instead of knowing someone was going to be able to bail them out.”

With their early success behind them, the Orange and Blue are focused on not repeating last year’s end-of-the-season collapse.

“Our goal for the first half was to go 7-3 and we did that. Great, good job, it’s over with now. It’s nice that we met that goal, but now we’re focused on Michigan,” Edinger said. “That’s all, not how many wins we’re going to get yet. We’re just focused on Michigan, taking care of them, keeping everyone healthy and just taking one step at a time.”