Volleyball secures No. 9 seed in NCAA Tournament

By Kyle Diller

It was a victorious end to the regular season as No. 15 Illinois shut out Wisconsin and Northwestern with 3-0 triumphs this weekend.

The two wins brought the Illini’s winning streak to five as they prepare for the NCAA Tournament.

The Illini finished the regular season in third place in the Big Ten, behind undefeated No. 1 Penn State and No. 12 Minnesota, earning them the ninth seed in the NCAA Tournament’s field of 64 which was announced Sunday night.

The Illini are encouraged by their showing against conference foes as Friday’s first-round match against Milwaukee-Wisconsin at Huff Hall approaches.

“The team played very consistently and seemed to get a little more fuel in their fire game by game,” head coach Don Hardin said. “They’re just playing better and better, especially our outside hitting.”

Junior Kylie McCulley had a career night with a hitting percentage of 0.542 and 16 kills against Northwestern on Saturday.

“It was a great feeling, it’s the end of the Big Ten season, we’re on the road,” McCulley said. “We just came out, played our style of ball, had fun and came out with two wins.”

Also turning in an outstanding performance for Illinois was sophomore Laura DeBruler, who once again filled up the stat sheet as she tore apart both Wisconsin and Northwestern, recording 16 and 15 kills in each game, respectively.

“This week we worked really hard in practice. I know the blockers, like the middles, were working really hard on their attacking,” DeBruler said. “Kylie and I, we were trying to get better at some different shots and stuff.”

While DeBruler is known for her fantastic attacking play for the Orange and Blue, she has improved her defensive game, adding to her potency for the Illini.

“This weekend I was really focusing on getting more blocks. I think I definitely improved on that … getting more touches and just being a bigger threat up in the front row,” DeBruler said. “I think it kind of showed, so that was really good.”

With two stellar performances to wrap up the team’s regular season, the Illini now turn to the NCAA Tournament where the home court advantage is exactly what the Illini were hoping for.

“They were just excited to play in Huff again, and they were excited about a No. 9 seed,” Hardin said.

“We were ranked lower all year in the AVCA poll, and we knew our RPI was really, really high, so we didn’t know where we would end up.”

The bad news is that if they win their first three matches, they’ll come up against undefeated Penn State, who has already beat the Illini 3-0 twice this year.

But Hardin insists his team isn’t focused on that adversary just yet. Right now, the focus is on the opportunity to play at Huff Hall in front of their loyal fans.

“It’s huge, especially if we can get students out to support us like they did earlier in the year,” Hardin said.

“We got a great year and it’s a fun team to watch and if we got the pride, the Illini pride, and a lot of students come out to that game, that’ll just be an electric atmosphere.”