Volleyball wins 5th straight Illini Classic

All Hillary Haen knew she had to do was give her teammates good sets and the team would be successful.

Thanks to her strong play for the volleyball team over the weekend, she was named the State Farm Illini Classic’s Most Outstanding Player.

“We have so many good hitters on the team,” the senior Haen said. “They couldn’t pick one of them so they had to pick the setter.”

“She’s such a consistent player, a problem solver and a winner,” head coach Kevin Hambly said about Haen’s performance. “That’s a really good combination for having that setting position because she’s so calm and relaxed.”

Her play helped power the No. 6-ranked Illinois squad to become champions of the tournament after going 3-0 at Huff Hall on Friday and Saturday.

To get the final win, Illinois had to hold off a strong charge from Middle Tennessee State.

The Blue Raiders claimed the first set of the match Saturday night, edging the Illini 25-23 and gaining momentum early on. The two teams battled hard for most of the second set, but Illinois was able to pull away at the end by taking it 25-18 to tie the match at one apiece.

The Illini settled in during the third and fourth sets by staying disciplined against the Blue Raiders and won 25-16 and 25-12, respectively.

“Illinois volleyball wears teams down,” Hambly said. “We grind and we wore them down and it was exciting to see that.”

“We definitely found our groove more,” senior Laura DeBruler added. “There’s still some instances where we lapsed a little bit, but overall we’re really starting to figure out who we are as a team.”

For their solid play, DeBruler and senior Johannah Bangert joined Haen on the all-tournament team.

For DeBruler, it’s the fourth time receiving the honor, which makes her the only person to ever do so. She reached another milestone over the weekend by recording 51 kills to put her second on Illinois’ all-time list.

Bangert also had solid performances by tallying 11 blocks on the weekend and hit .531 with 20 kills. The nation’s leader in blocks the past two seasons is now fourth on the school’s block list.

Earlier on Saturday, Illinois took on the South Carolina Gamecocks and won 25-21, 25-21, 25-23. The Gamecocks stayed within striking distance of the Illini despite falling behind early in each of the sets.

In Friday’s annual Stuff Huff match, nearly 2,700 fans came to see the Illini take on Hambly’s alma mater, the BYU Cougars.

BYU held off a comeback by winning 27-25 in the first set and was able to take the crowd out the match. Illinois recovered in the second set in dominating fashion by picking up a 25-9 win to re-energize the fans.

The near-capacity crowd roared for the rest of the match and helped push the Illini to a pair of 25-16 set wins to win the match.

At times over the three matches, Illinois appeared to lose consistency, which DeBruler thinks the team still has to improve on.

“We have to find our style as soon as possible and staying in that for long periods of time and not letting down at any point,” the senior said.

The weekend’s matches helped prepare new Illini Colleen Ward, an outside hitter transfer from Florida, and Jennifer Bonilla, a freshman libero, for a difficult upcoming slate of opponents. Their play impressed both coaches and teammates.

“(Ward) is a great addition to our team,” Hambly said. “She puts us in the conversation about competing for Big Ten titles.”

“With the connection you have to have between a libero and a setter, I think she’s doing a fantastic job,” Haen added about Bonilla. “I think she started out a little nervous, but by the last match she was fantastic.”