Illini volleyball excited to face new competition in postseason

With the regular season over, the Illinois volleyball team will encounter a different atmosphere and fresh faces as it begins the NCAA Championships, hosting the Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne Mastadons at Huff Hall on Thursday before a possible second round matchup against the winner of Milwaukee and Dayton on Friday.

“That’s one of the exciting things about this tournament,” junior Hillary Haen said. “We basically don’t know anything about the teams that we are going to face. It means we have less to be afraid of, but also that we have a lot of work cut out for us.”

Illinois is in the challenging Stanford Regional, which includes the strong forces of No. 4-seed Stanford and the Hawaiian Lady Wahine, who received the No. 12 national seed despite being ranked No. 3 in the polls.

“We know about the nationally ranked teams because those are the big names,” Haen said. “However, we still don’t know that much about them so that leaves room for a lot of surprises that we hope present an unique challenge for us.”

Illini ranks 5th in polls

No new polls were released this week, but Illinois ended its regular season ranked fifth in the country at 24-5. The Illini finished second in the Big Ten, behind Penn State, who they fell to twice. The team had an 11-game winning streak this season, the longest winning streak for Illini volleyball since 1992 when they won 22 straight matches.

“I think that we really showed just how well Illini volleyball can do,” Haen said. “We really proved this season that we have the ability to compete with a really high level of volleyball.”

Junior Johannah Bangert ended the regular season as the nation’s leader in blocks per set, averaging 1.58. This is her second season on top of the national leaderboard.

The Illini block is ranked 21st in the nation, averaging 2.65 blocks per set.

“Our block and our defense is one of the strongest aspects of the team this season,” head coach Kevin Hambly said.

“We are a defensively minded team and that’s what it takes to go far in college volleyball,” Hambly added.

Digging from the bench to set up success

Despite facing adversity this season, the Illini remained a solid force in the Big Ten. One of the biggest blows to the Illini was when four-year starting libero Ashley Edinger tore her ACL on Oct. 31.

Sophomore Rachel Feldman has filled in as the starting libero since then.

“I think one of the best qualities of our team is that we have a very versatile team,” junior Laura DeBruler said. “We are able to help one another out and adjust to all different types of situations.”

Last Wednesday against Northwestern, Haen was out with the flu and freshman Jackie Wolfe started in place of her. In her first career start at the setter position, Wolfe finished the night with 37 assists and nine digs, leading the Illini to a four-set victory.

“The team has been able to adapt to a lot this season,” Hambly said. “We hope that everything meshes together so they can play at their highest potential.”