No. 1 Penn State risks NCAA record winning streak at Huff Hall

 

 

By Kate Munson

In 2004, then-No. 1 USC entered Huff Hall riding an NCAA-record 52-match winning streak. But the Illini played spoiler against the Trojans, upsetting them in five sets.

The only member of the current Illini roster with the team at that time was redshirt senior outside hitter Kayani Turner.

“I’ll never forget that,” Turner said. “The crowd was crazy. We came up, we were just ready to go. We heard they hadn’t lost in two years or something, we were just excited to play them.”

Now, history could repeat itself at Huff Hall, as No. 1 Penn State enters Friday’s competition with an identical 52-match winning streak and a 26-0 season record.

“Other people want to talk about (how) we haven’t lost a match yet, but I don’t really look at it that way,” Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. “I look at it as we have to get better at a number of things, and it’s hard to do that when people are distracted by their academics and just general stuff.

“Right now there are a lot of teams in the country that are just hoping to fine tune and get healthy and get ready for the NCAA Championships. That’s how I look at it,” Rose added.

Just because the Nittany Lions are having a dominant season doesn’t mean they’re overlooking the Illini. Rose is paying special attention to a pair of Orange and Blue offensive standouts.

“We played them the first weekend of the year and it was early in the development of Michelle (Bartsch) at the right side position and her numbers have continued to get better and better. I watched her as a junior player, I think she’s a terrific talent,” Rose said. “(Laura) DeBruler is leading the conference in points. That doesn’t go unnoticed. We’ll have to play well, we know that.”

Penn State is led by senior middle hitter Christa Harmotto, who is second in the Big Ten in blocks with 1.48 per set, just behind Illinois sophomore Johannah Bangert’s 1.57 average. Harmotto also leads the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .529.

But the weekend isn’t over after the Penn State battle. Indiana invades Huff Hall on Saturday and the Fighting Illini realize they can’t overlook the weekend’s unranked opponent.

“A loss to Indiana would almost be as significant as a win against Penn State. We have to really protect our home court against the teams that are ranked below us, that’s really critical going into the NCAA,” head coach Don Hardin said. “It’s not like we can just concentrate on Penn State and then the next night we have an easy match against Indiana. That’s not the case. They’ve proven they’re capable of beating teams better than us and they’re coming in here hot.”

Leading the way for the Hoosiers is senior middle blocker Erica Short, who has tallied 460 kills this season, good enough for first in the Big Ten.

With the Big Ten season nearing an end, a strong performance this weekend could boost Illinois to sole possession of second place in the conference. Penn State is the next team standing in its way.

“Like USC, they have to come through Huff Gym to break that record, and I think they’ve got enough upperclassmen and fortitude to pull it off,” Hardin said of the Nittany Lions. “But if they play poorly or they’re off their game, we’ll accommodate them because we’ll stay steady and do what we do regardless.”

While the Illini may be preparing equally for both opponents, there’s no doubt the Penn State match will be historic, no matter which team is victorious.

“If we should happen to beat them, it would be one of the most remarkable games you’ll ever see in your life,” Hardin said. “There’s always that outside shot and no one’s even taken a game, so if we take a game who knows what they’ll do.”